Ox­ford v-c tar­gets over­haul of ‘scle­rotic’ ad­min­is­tra­tion

THE (Times Higher Education) - - NEWS - chris.haver­gal@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

The vice-chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Ox­ford has sig­nalled her in­ten­tion to re­form the in­sti­tu­tion’s “scle­rotic” ad­min­is­tra­tive struc­tures, warn­ing that Ox­ford oth­er­wise faces “slow but def­i­nite de­cline”.

In her an­nual ora­tion, Louise Richard­son said that “much of the suc­cess” of Ox­ford “can be at­trib­uted to its de­volved struc­ture”, but she ex­pressed con­cern that the num­ber of func­tions car­ried out at col­lege or de­part­men­tal level “al­lows for a great deal of du­pli­ca­tion of ac­tiv­i­ties”, wast­ing both money and time.

At­tempts to cen­tralise func­tions at Ox­ford can be con­tro­ver­sial, and the au­ton­omy of col­leges is fiercely de­fended, so Pro­fes­sor Richard­son will want to avoid the sort of un­rest over gov­er­nance that marred the vice-chan­cel­lor­ship of John Hood be­tween 2003 and 2009.

In her ad­dress, Pro­fes­sor Richard­son said that the ques­tion she had asked her­self most of­ten since tak­ing over as vice-chan­cel­lor in Jan­uary 2016 was how Ox­ford main­tained its suc­cess “when we or­gan­ise our­selves in this scle­rotic way” and when staff spend so much time “on things that are so far re­moved from what brought us here to be­gin with”.

She said, for ex­am­ple, that it took 32 min­utes to process a straight­for­ward ex­penses claim for a £10 taxi trip at Ox­ford be­cause pa­per forms are used and mul­ti­ple checks are made by staff at de­part­men­tal and cen­tral lev­els. More com­plex claims can take twice as long, and it has been es­ti­mated that pro­cess­ing the univer­sity’s ex­penses claims con­sumes re­sources equiv­a­lent to 30 full-time staff mem­bers each year.

High­light­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tive sprawl, Pro­fes­sor Richard­son said that only 15 per cent of Ox­ford’s 275 hu­man re­sources staff were based cen­trally, while just 40 per cent of IT staff were in the IT depart­ment.

She ar­gued that there “must be many more op­por­tu­ni­ties for greater ef­fi­ciency, bet­ter co­or­di­na­tion and shar­ing of back-of­fice ac­tiv­i­ties”.

“We all know that change oc­curs slowly at Ox­ford,” Pro­fes­sor Richard­son warned. “But the world is chang­ing rapidly around us, and I be­lieve that if we stand still we will en­ter a pe­riod of slow but def­i­nite de­cline.”

She said that an ini­tia­tive, One Ox­ford, would be aimed at “re­cast­ing and sim­pli­fy­ing ser­vice de­liv­ery”, in or­der “to en­sure that we re­main one of the world’s pre­em­i­nent uni­ver­si­ties by al­low­ing all of us to fo­cus our re­sources on the ac­tiv­i­ties we care about most, the re­search and teach­ing which are, and al­ways have been, the cen­tral mis­sion of this great univer­sity”.

Gill Evans, Ox­ford’s emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of me­dieval the­ol­ogy, said that dons would be con­cerned about any re­forms that were per­ceived to erode aca­demic self-gov­er­nance or col­lege au­ton­omy.

“‘Scle­rotic’ has been a fa­mil­iar crit­i­cism, but at­tempts at gov­er­nance change have never so far prised the fin­gers of Oxbridge aca­demics from their pre­vi­ous free­dom to gov­ern them­selves. After all, it works,” Pro­fes­sor Evans said.

But David Pal­frey­man, bur­sar of New Col­lege, Ox­ford, said that Pro­fes­sor Richard­son’s pro­pos­als looked like “sen­si­ble tin­ker­ing to get welcome ef­fi­ciency gains”.

“No­body can pos­si­bly ob­ject to the stream­lin­ing of rou­tine ad­min­is­tra­tion to save money that can far more use­fully be spent at the chalk­face in our teach­ing of un­der­grad­u­ates pay­ing £9,250 per an­num or in sup­port of our ‘num­ber one univer­sity’ global re­search brand,” Mr Pal­frey­man said.

In the ora­tion, Pro­fes­sor Richard­son also urged op­po­nents of Ox­ford’s pol­icy re­quir­ing aca­demics to re­tire at the age of 68 to “abide by the ex­pressed pref­er­ence of their col­leagues”, who voted to back the rules six times last year.

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