The Twentieth Century and Beyond

A new Board of Finance

The Chancellor from 1907 to 1925, Lord Curzon, saw finance as "the clue to the majority of University problems, and the condition of the majority of University reforms". In 1912, dissatisfied with the Curators of the Chest, he created a new Board of Finance charged with making comprehensible accounts for the University and colleges, to raise college contributions towards University purposes, and to create the more efficient administration of finance, ambitions that were not to be met for almost a century. In 1913 the Board sought control over departmental funds, another long-running story, but faced with great opposition on all sides, Council decided to accept voluntary contributions. The autonomy of departmental finances, only finally ceasing with the new finance system in April 2004, meant that, for example, in 1953/54 the University's annual accounts totalled 425 pages.

Not to be deterred, in 1915 the Board tackled college accounts, whose format had been set since 1881, but did not proceed when it realised that such a change needed the consent of every college, which was clearly not likely to be forthcoming. After these defeats, the functions of the Board were transferred back to the Curators of the Chest in 1919. This restored the influence of the Chest such that Council had to consult it on any money spend. It was said to have a "reputation for special sagacity and strength of purpose, and employed methods which bordered upon the obscure".

Further attempts were made to extend the Chest's influence over a wider field. The Asquith commission in 1920 considered that the University should be responsible for the colleges' accounts but this was fought off again. Curiously, it also recommended that the Chest review college catering every 3 years and encourage centralised buying, a exercise that staggered on until abolished formally in 1963. The Commission also recommended permanent government support for the University, and in 1922 Oxford received its first state grant of £30,000.

Government funding

Government funding increased as the wider economic depression produced falls in endowment income. In 1929 the University bid for an increase from £95,500 to £110,000 but was only granted £97,500. It was only after the Second World War that government money became available for capital funding. Before then, the University had to rely wholly upon private generosity, of which Lord Nuffield was the prime example in the inter-war period. Throughout this period there were calls for reform and, like today, arguments that Oxford should emulate the successful American universities.

Things progressed slowly. After 1945, concern about the state of buildings led to the first major appeal which in 1957-58 raised £1.6m. At the same time, the government supported expansion in university education in which Oxford shared, its UGC grant increasing from £30,000 in 1922 to £5.2m in 1963 and now to over £120m. However, the quinquennial planning set up in the years of plenty collapsed in the 70s, and real cuts in funding began in 1981. The introduction of formula funding by the UGC put the University in deficit in 1985. To cope, spending was reduced between 1985 and 1990 by 11%, and this trend has continued at a slower rate ever since.

Into the 21st Century

The standing of the Curators was damaged by the Owen case in the 1930's when a senior academic sold worthless patents, a situation ignored by the Curators. The resultant court case against the University led Council to take steps to restrict the powers of the Curators, until the Franks Commission established the structure that pertained until 2000 in which a Resources Committee dealt with budgetary affairs and allocations, the Curators becoming more of a stewardship committee than taking any active role in policy-making.

Following the North Commission, and the subsequent consideration of its recommendations for a simplified and more coherent committee structure, the Curators were finally abolished in 2000, and its remaining responsibilities disbursed amongst the new committees that we have now, primarily to PRAC and the Finance Committee. The Chest, as the finance office, was renamed the Finance Division, although occasionally post still arrives addressed to the Chest.

In 2007 the Finance Division was able to consolidate its previously fragmented operations into one office in Hythe Bridge Street. The 17th century painted iron chest has moved with the Division and is on display in the entrance although now all the contents have been removed for security reasons. The problems remain much the same as they have always been, but the sums are greater. After all, Oxford would not get very far these days on the fifty-two shillings a year it began with.

Proctors' Accounts 1492-3

[ previous ]