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University Spending Cuts– A Blessing in Disguise for Oxford

January 13, 2010

Let me start off by saying that I am not normally a person who advocates for spending cuts in higher education– if anything, I believe in most cases that more money needs to be invested in higher education. But that discussion is for another day.

Today, I just want to think about the proposed cuts from the perspective of the University of Oxford. The Russell Group (20 leading universities in the UK), of which Oxford is a member, has denounced the upcoming cuts as harmful to the nation’s long-term interests. This may indeed be true, but for Oxford specifically, I think it could be a blessing in disguise.

Top universities accuse Gordon Brown of jeopardising 800 years of higher education, warning that they could quickly be “brought to their knees” by the government’s spending cuts of up to £2.5bn, thereby damaging Britain’s ability to recover from recession.

In a withering attack, the leaders of the Russell Group of 20 leading universities say: “It has taken more than 800 years to create one of the world’s greatest education systems, and it looks like it will take just six months to bring it to its knees.”

…The group, which includes Warwick, Liverpool and Glasgow universities as well as Oxford and Cambridge, say that ministers have failed to appreciate one of the “jewels in the country’s crown”. Full story.

Some background: You need to know a little bit about Oxford first. A helpful way of thinking about the University of Oxford is to compare it with the EU. The central university administration is like Brussels, setting standards, offering examinations, and providing some coordination functions.

In this analogy, the states of the EU are the colleges. They hold a lot of the power since many of the faculty are employed by the colleges, undergraduate teaching is done through the colleges, and the colleges are the centre of social life.  Most importantly, colleges each have their own endowments, collect their own fees, raise, and spend their own money. They are fiscally independent from the centre. Like the EU states, the rich colleges also subsidize the poorer ones. There are 38 colleges in all and 6 private halls.

What this administrative structure means in practice is that a lot of the power (and money) is held not in the hands of the central administration (see Brussels), but rather is dispersed through the colleges. This also means that there are great inequalities within the Oxford system– affecting both students and faculty.

The opportunity: for Oxford, the proposed cuts are going to force some big changes in the system. Given the huge inefficiencies in the system, I think this is a good thing. In many ways, the Oxford system is stuck in a time warp and needs a good swift kick to get it into the future. Based on comparisons with other institutions that I know well (Univ. of Waterloo, Princeton, Yale),  it seems to me that Oxford has some huge inefficiencies that need to be addressed. There are definitely some people here who are aware of them, but trying to change the system is extremely difficult so everyone just muddles along and makes do. There is not enough incentive for change. The former Vice-Chancellor, John Hood, tried making some of those big changes and ran up against a wall.  He had it exactly right and was trying to drag Oxford (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century– but he failed. He has since resigned.

In summary, I think the cuts have the potential to force change upon Oxford in a way that could actually lead to a strengthened academic institution. I have a list of issues that I think the university as a whole should address and I will blog about these over time. Here is the first one.

Issue #1: Replication of bureaucracy and student services

One of the most striking things about Oxford is that there is 38 of everything. 38 libraries. 38 dining halls. 38 heads of college. 38 admissions offices. 38 IT departments. 38 cricket pitches– each of which is barely ever used. And these examples are only from the college level. For something like the libraries, it drives me nuts that I do not have access to 37 of the 38 libraries. Why not consolidate all of the libraries and provide access to everyone? Why not standardize Oxford’s IT system and have it managed centrally?

Why not re-imagine the Oxford system altogether?

What if we could start from scratch– what would our ideal university look like? What features of the college system do we like and want to preserve? Which parts of the existing system are problematic and prevent Oxford from reaching its potential? How much of the Oxford charm are we willing to give up before it becomes a soul-less institution? Or rather– what are we willing to pay to have that charm?

Sometimes, it is helpful to put the efficiency vs. charm choices in stark (and sometimes ridiculous) terms: would you rather have a physics lab or a wine cellar? Logs for the Senior Common Room fireplace for the winter months or extra tutors to teach classes? A layer of college administration or stipends for every single graduate student who studies at Oxford? It makes no sense to me that part of my compensation package is offered in the form of fancy multi-course dinners up to six times a week– I can’t take advantage of this anyway because I have a family that I want to eat dinner with– why not cut down the number of formal dinners to one a week and spend the money on something that will directly improve the quality of academic life? I’d rather have someone come and clean my house than have a fancy meal. Or better yet, why not compensate me directly through my salary?

I’ve presented some oversimplified choices within Oxford college life, but we really do need to think of resources in these terms.

As a college fellow, I generally have no incentive to do this– of course I want to keep as many of the perks as possible. I love the fact that I don’t have to go to the post office because one of the porters mails everything off for me. Someone needs to change my incentives– and in order for this to happen, we need the equivalent of a fiscal earthquake.

On top of the college bureaucracy, there is the University administration with another two layers of bureaucracy– at the department level as well as the central administration. My forms often require signatures from three different offices:  my college, my department, and the central administration. It seems to me that two of those signatures are unnecessary. Think about how much time and energy could be saved if even one of these bureaucratic layers was eliminated. Imagine: faculty would have fewer administrative duties which would allow more time for research and teaching.

Recommendation #1: Re-imagine Oxford from scratch– think consciously about what should be kept or discarded bearing in mind the costs and alternative uses of funds. Streamline processes and consolidate student services through the colleges and the university such as libraries, dining halls, IT, development offices, accounting systems, chapels, maintenance staff, student accommodation, etc.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna permalink
    January 13, 2010 3:59 pm

    Hey Christine! First comment from your faithful reader. Am snowed under and have still to read your draft today 😉 so my very quick response is:

    So lovely to have some North American positivity injected into the situation. Yes, let’s look for opportunities within the crisis. And there is definitely room for cutting out inefficiencies.

    However, I’m not sure I would support undercutting the collegiate system. It is what makes Oxbridge what it is. Without it, we’d become a mediocre university that really won’t have much to offer in competition with the Ivy League.

    High table is part of college life and part of what makes it special. I’ve noticed a big variation among colleges in that regard. Mine only has two high table nights a week in practice, sometimes three, rarely more. Instead, lunch is much better attended, far better for colleagues with families. We have also had a cut in the standard of the fare – an occasion for much grumbling, but preferable to cutting down on library resources or letting staff go. Other colleges I’ve been to apparently chose to leave the budget for fellows’ meals untouched, while the rest of the college suffers. There is a choice here that doesn’t involve doing away with high table.

    I like knowing that we are the heirs of medieval monastic communities, and somehow that in itself makes me feel more collegial. I know this is not the fuzzy warm talk I normally offer on the topic of Oxbridge 🙂 I guess I just think that the reform needs to focus on other aspects of the system.

  2. January 13, 2010 11:15 pm

    Hi Christine. I’ve made some comments very close to this in the past, especially on the duplication of student services. There is a lot that’s irrational about the way Oxford is organised. However, there is also a method to the madness that isn’t always immediately obvious; or at least, there are benefits compared to the most likely alternatives. Let me take issue with a few of your points.

    1. John Hood: I can’t possibly agree that Hood “had it exactly right”. Some of his reforms were well intentioned but others were simply wrong-headed. Hood launched an outright attack on the autonomy of Oxford dons and tried to reconfigure the University’s governance to give a majority of places on the Council to external appointees (i.e., businessmen). I am glad he was defeated on this point. People rightly asked why, since Oxford is one of the world’s best universities, such fundamental changes were really required.

    2. I would always be wary of suggesting that funding cuts are a magic wand for resolving institutional irrationalities. In an ideal world, yes, people would look at a diminished income flow and consider reforming an institution to preserve the best of what it does and trim away superfluous activities and waste. In reality, what occurs is a vicious power struggle for resources in which the strong emerge even stronger and the weak always suffer. The rising cuts in HE is already producing a sector-wide struggle for resources: the Russell Group is insisting that research money should be concentrated in a research elite (i.e. itself), the 1994 Group is demanding that PhD studentships should be confined to ‘quality’ establishments (i.e., itself), the Million+ group is emphasising the widening participation agenda (i.e., itself), and so on. And within the sector and individual universities there are also struggles between particular subjects (with Arts and Humanities poised to be “put to the sword” as the head of Universities UK so charmingly put it) as to who will sink or swim.

    Slashing government funding at Oxford would not prompt a rational, selfless rethink of the institution. The axe would not fall proportionately across all the colleges but would hit the smaller, poorer ones hardest since they are most dependent on external income. The richer ones would simply pull up their drawbridge, or use their superior resources to negotiate an overall settlement that would disproportionately favour them. (Proof: the internal Resource Allocation Mechanism for redistributing money between colleges, which is supposed to smooth out inequalities, actually benefits the richest colleges most. Top beneficiary: Nuffield!) Alternatively the richer colleges might simply pull up their drawbridges. The rich colleges periodically threaten to privatise themselves and are making contingencies for this.

    3. You ask what an ideal university would look like if one started from scratch. Obviously that’s a big question. But the one thing I would emphasise above all else is academic freedom: academics need to be completely autonomous in terms of what and how they research and teach. The benefit of this is obvious enough – it carves out a space in society for free enquiry, free speech, the exploration of ideas without fear or favour, radical rethinking of fundamental issues, etc. Universities should be (and once were) self-governing communities of academics which ran on a guild-like basis. The collegiate system at Oxford helps preserve this by decentralising power and making it hard to compel academics to do things. This is why managers hate it, and technocrats like John Hood want to reform it. But we should be quite wary of throwing away one of the few bulwarks against managerialism in the university.

    4. There are some very real benefits to a lot of the things you think are a bit silly. High table, porters, logs on the fire in the SCR, and so on – they do all seem very archaic and wasteful, and some people obviously don’t enjoy them either. But for many others, they constitute perks that actually substantially increase their quality of life. That matters for a place like Oxford because it really can’t compete with peer institutions, especially in the US, on the basis of pay. It has to offer something less tangible but still attractive to help recruit and retain top people. A related argument also applies to people at the bottom: these perks help make the low salaries offered to college lecturers and some JRFs bearable. OK, so they might prefer a few extra quid in their pay packet – but it would only be a few extra quid. Moreover, if these perks were eliminated due to funding cuts, they wouldn’t even get a few extra quid.

    I’m playing devil’s advocate a little bit with some of these points but there is, I think, a lot of truth in them!

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