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University democracy “hasn’t been working well”, says Louise Richardson

The vice-chancellor criticised University staff for their "self-interest" and for being uninterested in university democracy

Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson has sharply criticised the university’s system of democratic self-governance, blaming a lack of engagement from staff for
its failings.

Currently less than 10% of university committee positions are contested, meaning that figures advising on areas from finance to Oxford’s “educational philosophy” face little risk of being challenged for their post.

A meeting of Congregation, the University’s ultimate legislative body, was called during last Trinity after 20 members signed a motion calling for the move. Of the over 5,000 academic and research support staff eligible to attend, just nine did. Three quarters of the motion’s signatories were not present, while just four spoke.

In her annual Oration to Congregation last week, Richardson said that this state of affairs, “is not an example of a well-functioning system, or wise use of scarce resources.”

While stating that Oxford’s democracy is one of its “rare and admirable attributes” and “a wonderful ideal”, she indicated that staff must begin to engage more closely with it and to avoid using it as “a mechanism for the promotion of self-interest”.

Richardson’s critique of “self-interest” comes as part of a broadside against those protesting the introduction at Oxford of an age limit for academics.

Following the government’s abolition of a national default retirement age, Oxford introduced an Employer-Justified Retirement Age (EJRA) of 68. This met with fierce protest from older academics, and support from younger fellows who characterised the issue as one of intergenerational justice.

Professor Peter Edwards of Oxford’s Chemistry Department questioned whether it was appropriate for the Vice-Chancellor to make such comments, writing in a letter set to be published in Oxford Magazine and seen by Cherwell: “Can it be acceptable for the Vice- Chancellor to make what appears to be a blatantly ‘ageist’ remark by criticising the ‘self-interest’ of those querying the University’s decision to claim exception from equality legislation in this respect?

“And what of younger colleagues who have expressed equally legitimate concerns about the EJRA? Will the University assign a critical age above which a legitimate ‘concern’ transitions to an unreasonable ‘self-interest?’”

Richardson went on to say that she sought to “plead with those who last term lost six votes on the subject of the EJRA to abide by the expressed preference of their colleagues and let the issue rest until the next review, scheduled in four years’ time”.

She compared the continued struggle by EJRA opponents to that of Remainers and Hillary voters, arguing that while they lost “as democrats they accepted the decision”.

Professor Edwards however described these comments as “simply incorrect and misleading”.

He told Cherwell: “There was only one resolution to Congregation specifically targeted to the abolition of the EJRA… that was the resolution on 16 May 2017 proposed by Sir John Ball and seconded by Professor Paul Ewart.”

Edwards claimed that the other votes were in fact on “tangential issues”, such as “procedural issues and in particular governance in relation to the EJRA”.

The last major attempt to reform Oxford’s ancient and complex governing structures was under the Vice-Chancellorship of John Hood, from 2004 to 2009.

Hood – who came to the post from business rather than academia, as is typical – sought to end Oxford’s 900-year-old tradition of complete self-governance by introducing ‘external members’ to council, the executive body elected by Congregation. In this way Hood hoped that corporate management principles might be brought into Oxford’s governance, saving money and time.

Lord Patten, Oxford’s Chancellor then and now, defended the move, telling the BBC that reforms were necessary to ensure that private money could be raised, and children from deprived backgrounds helped.

Hood’s proposals were, however, defeated even in an amended form, largely due to Congregation’s desire to remain independent of any external influence.

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