Wednesday, 8 August 2007
Today's leaked missive from the Higher Education Funding Council to Oxford University would seem to give ammunition to all those who fear excessive government interference in academia. And with Gordon Brown as Prime Minister, his clumsy intervention in the Laura Spence affair seven years ago can be stirred in the pot to heighten the paranoia of the dons as they relax in Tuscany. But the two issues should not so easily be conflated. Brown was wrong to get involved in the Spence affair, since her rejection by Oxford probably reflected a wider problem of demand over supply rather than deliberate discrimination against a comprehensive school student. However, when an institution is publicly funded, the government and its agencies have some legitimate interest in its governance and practices. What is most notable about the Hefce note is not that it was sent - Oxford seems to have expected it - but its temperate and tolerant tone. "It is not our current intention to require the university to adopt a particular governance regime," is what the letter says. So, this is more a sensible shot across the bows in support of what Oxford's vice-chancellor John Hood tried in vain to achieve - governance arrangements that are more outward looking, and more coherent - rather than some diktat from government. But what of Oxford's admissions? Oxford is better at admitting state pupils now than in 1997, though it has faltered of late. The challenge is not just one for Oxford, however. Hefce's targets use indicators that don't relate to the admissions requirements of leading universities. Oxford should be doing more to admit some of 3000 state school students who get 3As or more at A-level but don't go to a top university, as the Sutton Trust has reported (pdf file), and Hefce and the Office for Fair Access should judge their access record accordingly.