Healthy governance? In this day and age?!

Although specific to Oxford, this blog highlights the sort of changes that are being made in university governance across the UK that reduce the role of academics. Readers aware of other examples are warmly invited to contact us and contribute to the CDBU blog.

According to Statute III of the University of Oxford, Convocation consists of all the former students who have been admitted to a degree, and of any other persons who are Congregation members or who have retired whilst being members of Congregation. It performs the functions of electing the Chancellor and the Professor of Poetry. Details for these elections can be found in Council Regulations 8 of 2002. On Thursday the 21st of March 2024, the Executive Governing Body of the University (i.e., Council) published in the Oxford Gazette a series of reforms targeting the electoral process designed to select the Chancellor, as well as the length of their tenure. The motivation for these changes was rather pithy. Council noted that: (i) the process defined in Council Regs 8 of 2002 should be changed to increase inclusivity, and (ii) the duration of the Chancellor’s appointment—hitherto a lifelong affair under Statute IX—should be for a fixed term to enhance flexibility. It goes without saying that Council gets to determine the length of such a term. 

The changes to Council Regs 8 of 2002 are sweeping. To start with, they establish a Chancellor’s Election Committee with the High Steward and the Vice-Chancellor as chair and deputy chair, respectively. In contrast with the now extinct Nomination Board of the University of Cambridge, the newly created Committee will not provide for explicit representation from members of staff or Convocation who do not belong to Congregation, such as post-doctoral researchers. In my opinion, the extensive powers of the Chancellor’s Election Committee will mean the practical disappearance of Convocation’s vestigial role in the governance of the University. First, it is not clear whether nominations can be lodged only by members of Convocation, and what the threshold for acceptance is. More worryingly, the Committee holds the prerogative of determining “which candidates are eligible to progress to the next stage of the election process”. In doing so, it can determine that only one candidate is worthy of progressing: under such circumstances, Council (and not Convocation) acquires the right of deeming this single candidate as duly elected. So much for the provisions of the King-in-Council Statute III, which explicitly empower Convocation to elect the Chancellor.  

On the 28th of March, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Irene Tracey, penned a letter to The Times to establish that the Election Committee would only check for eligibility and not suitability. Such a letter did little to assuage concerns, and it was followed by a leaked e-mail suggesting that active politicians would be barred from standing in the contest. It is unfortunate that Prof. Tracey’s letter only begins to make sense in light of this revelation, but a central question remains: what are the exact terms of reference and eligibility criteria of the Election Committee?

An overly optimistic interpretation of Council’s actions would suggest they want to ensure that the tenets of the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) are reflected in the election of the University’s nominal head. This is surely needed as the progress in this front with respect to Professorial posts, Divisional Boards and Central Committees is . An actual fulfilment of the PSED could include enfranchising Postdoctoral Researchers to become members of Congregation, just to cite an example. Council stripping Convocation of its vestigial prerogatives in the Cancellarial election is an odd decision, to say the least. 

The revision of Council Regs 8 of 2002 is, more likely than not, a fait accompli. When Council flexes its muscle in regard to changes in Regulations (as opposed to changes in Statutes), Congregation can only oppose Council’s actions if 20 or more members submit a Resolution within 11 days of the Regulation changes being announced. But Congregation is a dormant body that very rarely, if ever, overturns Council’s decisions. The last Congregation Resolution was carried on the 15th of November 2022, and it concerned re-starting the publication arrangements for the Oxford Magazine. A formal meeting was not held since Council deemed the resolution acceptable to it. One would need to look back to March 2020 (Graduate Application Fee Resolution) to find an example of Congregation overriding Council’s wishes.

As a Convocation (but not Congregation) member, I can only despair at what I would consider yet another governance failure. One failure that spans different fronts, I should add. My non-legal brain wonders if these changes are even compatible with the historically inclusive spirit of Statute III, which enfranchised all graduates and Congregation members in the open election of their Chancellor. In particular, I wonder whether a motivated individual could overturn Council’s appropriation of the Chancellor’s electoral process through the Oxford Appeal Court. The explicit faculty of the Election Committee to select a single candidate implies that Council can bypass Convocation altogether – surely this conflicts with the very first paragraph of Statute III? A more worrying finding, however, is that the planning of these sweeping reforms are nowhere to be found in the currently published Council minutes (which tend to be uploaded awfully late, in straight contravention of Council’s standing orders). If these plans were hidden from the community that means Council deemed them of a confidential nature. Would someone in Council care to explain how disclosure of this information would cause “serious damage or distress to the interests, employees, or reputation of the University”? That is a high bar to clear. And if these things are being done under secrecy, with radical changes announced outside of term time, what else are we missing? Transparency is the keystone of a trusted governance structure, and the University of Oxford is currently not being open.   

*The Oxford Magazine will publish a full issue on the 18 April devoted to these reforms. Jesús an written an additional piece for them on the same topic, which can be read only in print.

 Jesús Antonio Siller Farfán is a postdoctoral researcher at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, University of Oxford. He works in the field of cancer immunotherapy. Twitter/X: @j_siller