Chairman's foreword

(North) Commission of Inquiry

Sir John Astbury is alleged to have said: 'Reform, reform - are not things bad enough already?' The readers of this report should not be left either with the thought that the Commission of Inquiry was established because Oxford is in some state of crisis, or with the view that improvements are unnecessary or unattainable. It was, in our view, right that, some thirty years after the work of the Commission of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Franks, Oxford should initiate a process of re-examination of its activities and organisation. We have no doubt that Oxford has been and continues to be a university which provides teaching of a high quality and, through the tutorial system, of real distinctiveness. This is evidenced by the readiness with which Oxford graduates secure employment and by external assessments of the quality of the teaching. There are similar high aspirations in the field of research; again, external evidence, such as research assessment exercises, the levels of research income and the numbers of Oxford graduates in senior academic posts in this country and abroad, indicates success in realising those aspirations.

Nevertheless, there are undoubted concerns that the current achievements of the collegiate university could and should be built upon, and that there is room for real improvement. We share that view. Account needs also to be taken of the rapidly changing world of higher education in this country. There are great strengths in Oxford, not least the collegiate system, but there are weaknesses to be addressed. The purpose of our ninety-three recommendations is to do just that and, in our view, the key to success lies in large part in structural changes to the way in which Oxford runs itself. From that, we believe, many other improvements will the more readily follow. Nevertheless, in achieving change, sight must not be lost of the nature of a university as being, in Disraeli's words, ' place of light, of liberty and of learning'.

Over the past three years, several thousand people have contributed to our work. They have done so in a variety of ways - by responding to consultative documents, by writing to us more generally, by talking to us or to the several consultants we engaged, and by responding to the questionnaires which we distributed to elicit views on a range of matters. We are grateful to all of them for their varied contributions which have informed our work. We are also particularly grateful to those who have worked very closely with us in our work and in the preparation of this report. An especial debt is owed to our Secretary, Mr Michael Sibly, and to our Assistant Secretary, Mrs Simonne Samuelson. They have worked with great skill, energy and resilience to bring this project to completion. In doing so, they themselves have been loyally and ably supported by Mrs Nadine Howard and Mrs Cheryl Howes. We thank them all.

25 November 1997