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University Corporatization And The Oxford Dons

November 8, 2006

An unintentional but ongoing theme at this site has been the corporatization of higher education. One could argue that corporatization began the late 1950s and early 1960s with the onset of increased research spending – in an emerging climate President Eisenhower should’ve called “the military-industrial-educational complex.” Since then corporatization in higher education has increasingly gained the attention of scholars. A recent tributary subject has been the for-profit university. Books covering both issues, sometimes separately and sometimes together, include Richard Ruch and George Keller’s Higher Ed, Inc.; Derek Bok’s Universities in the Marketplace; James B. Twitchell’s Branded Nation, and David Breneman, et al’s Earnings From Learning.

Now corporatization is hitting Oxford University. Although the Guardian Unlimited has been reporting on this for awhile, I only picked up on the story a few days ago. Here are two long excerpts from Anushka Asthana’s piece on the subject:

– “Oxford University is facing a crucial vote over controversial proposals to modernise the 900-year-old institution which have split academic staff and are threatening the future of the vice-chancellor. Professors are preparing to go head to head with vice-chancellor John Hood over the plans to transform the way the university is run. One proposal would see business leaders, politicians and others not directly employed by the university take control of the council, a board of governors responsible for running the institution. The move, which would end hundreds of years of self-government, is essential if Oxford is to maintain its pre-eminence and gain a firmer financial footing, according to Hood. It is also argued that, without the changes, Oxford could not raise the money to compete with the world’s leading universities.”
– “But critics fear that the proposals will hand too much power to big business. Rebels hoping to undermine Hood’s plans will present their objections tomorrow ahead of the vote on Tuesday, 14 November, by Congregation, the academics’ ancient parliament. ‘What we fear most is concentration of too much power in the hands of too few people,’ said Colin Thompson, a fellow at St Catherine’s College, who fears that outsiders on the council will pass whatever the executive wants. ‘The council will ultimately hold the purse strings – whoever controls the purse strings, controls the show.’ Susan Cooper, a professor of physics and leading opponent of the plans, said that bringing in people from the corporate world would be a problem because they would not understand ‘that academics need to be differently motivated to those in corporations.'”

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Oxford’s council appears to be like a Board of Trustees, except that professors – the dons – have seats on the council. Of course this is radically different from American universities, where boards of trustees have been in power for years. In the U.S., this has resulted in either strife, with faculties on one side and administrators on the other, or arrangements for shared governance where professors and even students are consulted on administrative decisions.

I guess the significance of this debate at Oxford is just symbolic. American universities have long been world leaders in terms of administration, research, and trends. As with earlier observations here about German higher education, it is interesting to see how these things are applied and handled in Europe – the birthplace of the university. – TL

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