University a "misguided dictatorship"

A Christ Church tutor has criticised Oxford’s central administration as a “misdirected dictatorship”.

Peter Oppenheimer, Student Emeritus at the college, argued in the 0th week issue of Oxford Magazine, a weekly publication for university staff, that the solution to administrative problems can only be to cut ties with the UK government and become fully self-governing. “After decades of efficient and enlightened self-rule by the academic community, a bare 15 years has sufficed to replace it – how irreversibly remains to be seen – with inefficient and misdirected dictatorship by central bureaucracy”, he says.

He further attacks the fact that university administration defers to the government over the concerns of those within the university. “The perception and conduct of central office-holders vis-à-vis the academic community switched abruptly in the early 2000s from servant to overlord. In economic terms the administration, having formerly been the agent of those engaged in teaching and research, seems now to view itself as principal in the academic enterprise, with the teachers and researchers as mere agents and subordinates.”

He also criticises the University for its handling of new buildings and the city environment following the controversy over University building projects such as Castle Mill. “Ill-designed student apartments at Castle Mill, disfiguring the eastern side of Port Meadow, have caused outrage among the citizens of Oxford and been condemned in the strongest terms as a disgrace by the Planning Minister, Nick Boles.”

He further accuses university administration of not being entirely meritocratic in appointing academic staff, due to “administrative interference with the process of academic appointments, for example in cases where there is a lack of shortlistable female candidates”.

He blames its disregard for the concerns of its students and staff on excessive adherence to the demands of Whitehall, and argues for a greater degree of autonomy, with a radically different fees system based on the American model. “At prosperous American universities, high fees charged to wealthy students are (apart from the fairness aspect) a way of relieving calls on the endowment. Princeton (Oxford’s partner university) has an endowment only about one-third of Harvard’s but it has less than half the number of students.”

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The revenue that the University does generate from fees, he argues, is used ineffectively under a “ludicrous” policy of targeted underspending by the PRAC (Planning and Resource Allocation), the body that allocates funding across the University. He says that money spent on “assorted Institutes or Centres” and some visiting appointments could be better spent elsewhere, and recommends cutting several hundred central administrative personnel to save money, arguing that there is “no alternative measure that would save anything remotely approaching this amount”.

He further recommends establishing endowments for teaching that could provide funding independent of fees. Professor Oppenheimer has previously spoken out in favour of cutting non-academic jobs. In an article published in 2009, he supported plans to reform the Careers Service by decentralising and reducing one-on-one consultations.

Students contacted by Cherwell have questioned Oppenheimer’s comments. OUSU President Tom Rutland said, “These comments seem somewhat overblown to me. There are advantages that stem from having a collegiate university (such as having close knit college communities) but there are drawbacks too, such as disparity in teaching hours and rent costs. There are definite benefits to having some centrally provided services.”

University administration was attacked similarly in the 8th week Hilary edition of the magazine, which highlighted the growing disparity between highest and lowest-paid university staff, as well as suggesting that the Vice Chancellor’s pay was disproportionate by comparison with other management positions, including the permanent secretaries of government departments.

Oppenheimer and the University were both approached by Cherwell but declined to comment.