How Oxford’s attempts to drag itself into the 21st century have backfired

Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten of Barnes walks in a formal procession
Lord Patten of Barnes, Chancellor of Oxford, has chosen to retire this year, and the race to replace him is already stoking controversy - Leon Neal/Getty

With its centuries-old customs and peculiar vocabulary, the University of Oxford can seem to outsiders like a bastion of tradition. Many of its long-standing rituals are still embraced by students and academics today: the wearing of gowns to formal hall dinners, say; or the May Morning celebrations. When it comes to other traditions, some think it’s time for a change.

Since 1224, the chancellor of the university has been male. Now the incumbent, Lord Patten of Barnes, is retiring and a successor must be found. But Oxford’s apparent attempts to drag itself into the 21st century appear to have backfired.

In the latest edition of the Oxford University Gazette, it was announced that under new rules for the coming election of chancellor, a committee of academics and university administrators will oversee the process. For the first time, the election will take place online, whereas previously the former students who make up the electorate had to attend Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre in person, wearing full academic dress. About 8,000 participated in 2003 when Lord Patten was chosen.

Under the old rules, anyone could stand for election as long as they were nominated by 50 members of the university convocation – a body made up of all Oxford alumni and academics. Now, the committee will decide which candidates are eligible to progress to the next stage of the election process. In doing so, they will consider “the principles of equality and diversity and the approved role specification”.

Oxford, city skyline
The dreaming spires of Oxford - Max Dannenbaum/The Image Bank RF

This has been interpreted by some to mean that the committee will rig the process to ensure the next person occupying the largely ceremonial role is not another white male.

Neil O’Brien, the Conservative MP for Harborough and an alumnus of Oxford’s Christ Church College, warned of “a stitch-up”. Writing on X (formerly Twitter), he complained:

He would like to have seen more open discussion about the rule change. Does he think it’s time for a female chancellor?

“They should choose who the right person is for the job,” he says. “I would have no objection to anyone doing it if they can do it well. I just think as soon as you go away from the principle of choosing the best person, you find yourself on a slippery slope.”

He is not the only Tory MP to voice disquiet at the change in the process. Simon Clarke, Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger were among those who joined him in firing off a letter to The Times to express concern. “The new rules stating that candidate selection must have ‘due regard to the principles of equality and diversity’ are vague and undefined,” they wrote. “Where other universities around the world have moved away from meritocracy, the results have been disastrous.”

Some students too are wary about the new method the university is adopting for going about the process. “I think quite a few people feel a bit odd about it,” says Eilis Mathur, the deputy editor-in-chief for news at Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper. She cites a perceived lack of transparency around the new rules, adding: “It’s always been a representative and accessible process previously.”

The change comes amid a concerted effort to improve equality and diversity at a university whose first female vice-chancellor wasn’t appointed until 2016, and where it wasn’t until 2020 that a black woman became head of any college.

In 2015, almost one in three Oxford colleges failed to admit a single black British A-level student. Earlier this year, a Cherwell survey found that almost three quarters of Oxford students did not think the university was an “inclusive” environment. While recent years have seen a greater focus on equality, diversity and inclusion, only 11 per cent of students felt this had been effective.

If the new process for selecting a chancellor was devised with the aim of improving this, it’s unclear if its goal will be achieved. “If the process is ambiguous, it might do more harm than good,” says Mathur.

‘We would deplore any tinkering’

Baroness Ruth Deech, a former principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford, suggests, too, that those eligible to vote would take a dim view of any “doctored” list of candidates.

“It is high time that a woman takes up the role of chancellor and there are many well qualified and respected such,” she says. “But I, and many other Oxford graduates, would deplore any tinkering with the process by the university authorities. Oxford graduates are quite capable of nominating and voting for excellent candidates, with equality and diversity in mind. They will undoubtedly resist any list of candidates doctored by the university in pursuit of some unwanted and unnecessary quota or political agenda.”

A candidate perceived to be a “plant” is unlikely, she says. Others have been more welcoming of the move to consider diversity.

“I certainly think that all institutions should have diversity in mind when making appointments, largely to counterbalance the old assumptions that leadership positions are to be held by men,” says Baroness Helena Kennedy, former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. “We are still having to challenge those ingrained notions. The rule change is really just a ‘prompt’ to encourage voters to overcome those old-fashioned stereotypes of what leadership looks like. It doesn’t mean no white man can be in the running.”

There are no confirmed candidates for the role as yet, but former Tory minister Rory Stewart has been tipped as a contender. Former Labour prime minister Sir Tony Blair has also been mentioned in connection with the position, but his spokesman has ruled him out. Bookmaker William Hill has also put odds on former Tory prime minister Theresa May, while other names floated include Lady Angiolini KC, the principal of St Hugh’s College, former Tory prime minister Boris Johnson, and Imran Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan.

Theresa May
Time for a female figure at the top? Theresa May has been suggested as a contender - Dave Benett/Getty

“I doubt that after more than 800 years of glaring absence of female stewardship of the university, there could be a convincing and coherent argument put forward for not considering among the best candidates a (best) female chancellor,” says Prof Maria Jaschok, who’s involved in women’s studies programme at the university. “Our very zeitgeist speaks against such anachronistic traditionalism.”

A university spokesman says: “The University of Oxford’s next chancellor will be elected by convocation using an online platform. Eligibility for the role will first be checked by the chancellor’s election committee against criteria agreed by council.

“The committee will be made up of representatives from across the collegiate university and its council. Announcements about applications for the post and registering to vote will be made in due course.”