Review of the Permanent Private Halls associated with the University of Oxford
Wycliffe Hall was founded in 1877 as a theological college of the Church of England. It did not enter into the relationship with the University implied by status as a Permanent Private Hall until 1996. Its current sense of itself and of its vocation undoubtedly bears the imprint of this long period as a theological college not regulated by the University. It is clearly still a theological college principally dedicated to providing ministerial training to ordinands through degree/diploma/certificate courses appropriate to them. At the same time, it now admits school-leavers to study for the BA in Theology, as well as postgraduates for taught and research degrees. The Hall stands nambiguously within the evangelical tradition.
The panel noted during its visit that the Hall occupies a relatively coherent and substantial site and has a busy daily schedule and routine. There appears to be an adequate provision of staff studies, teaching rooms and communal areas. However, there were some student complaints about the quality of the accommodation. The dining hall is probably too small for the population, especially in light of a body of younger undergraduates and another of visiting students.
The operating accounts of the Hall over three years show stability, although the panel notes that some debt is secured on functional Hall property. The Hall depends considerably upon ordinand fees paid by the Church. The income from visiting students (to whose teaching the Hall contributes little) is a significant element in balancing the budget. In comparison with some other Permanent Private Halls, Wycliffe does have a good core of stipendiary academic staff. However, these are paid on a scale which combines the Church of England clerical scale and the University scale and which, we understand from the academic staff, is less than the comparable levels in the collegiate University and therefore represents a lesser budgetary commitment.
The panel felt anxiety about the delivery of the degrees of BTh and MTh as well as other diplomas and certificates. It was led to understand that much is taught in whole or in part entirely within the Hall and it has concerns over the robustness of the monitoring of standards and syllabi (especially in the certificates). This situation is common to other Halls and the panel’s anxiety is directed also at the University procedures in this area.
The panel was also anxious about the recruitment of school-leaving age undergraduates to Wycliffe. It was given to understand that the undergraduates are housed together separately within the Hall. As far as the Hall community is concerned, they find themselves in a society largely composed of mature students, the majority of whom are ordinands. Undergraduates are admitted only to read the BA in Theology and are contained within an institution solely concerned with the study of Theology. While the panel appreciates that in many cases such students come from Christian families who are looking for an Oxford education within a Christian context, it does not believe that this resembles an Oxford experience in its essentials or that it is a suitable educational environment for the full intellectual development of young undergraduates.
There is a persistent concern outside Wycliffe
about whether the strong emphasis on the evangelical
tradition in some way inflects the teaching of theology and ministry into
a narrow compass of interpretation.
It is certainly the case that the Hall’s documentation proclaims its evangelical
identity and commitment. It
is certainly true also that ordinands graduating from Wycliffe are recognised
to have a strongly marked
theological character. Nonetheless, those to whom the panel spoke within
the Hall consistently argued that
the tradition was not exclusive and that a range of opinion existed among
both academic staff and students.
It may be that some of the tensions that evidently exist between academics
inside the Hall derive from the
range of opinions held. Nonetheless, the panel feels that Wycliffe Hall does
need to make a determined
effort to clarify these matters to the rest of the University if it is to
achieve manifest harmony with the
University’s principles of education.
The Hall has a relatively recently appointed Principal (2005). The panel understands that he was appointed by the Wycliffe Council with the intention that he should reformulate the governance, administration and policy direction of the Hall. It is certainly the case that, as laid out in the Hall’s self-evaluation document, the formal structures and procedures now in place are coherent and well designed. It may well be that, since they are very recent, they are not yet entirely working in practice and that they have yet to be digested by the Hall’s population, as is often the case with reorganisations.
The internal tensions that the panel had observed at its visit to the Hall became public in the last stages of the review, and some specific allegations were made in circulated documents and the press. This caused the panel to reopen its consideration of issues concerning the Hall and to seek further explanation. In particular, following its terms of reference, the panel reconsidered the governance arrangements at the Hall and the procedures for appointing academic staff, matters addressed in our recommendations. The panel also concluded that the situation illustrated the general truth that small institutions are vulnerable to strong differences of opinion and depend considerably for their stability and viability on the handling of internal relationships. The panel feels that all this points to the special importance in the Permanent Private Halls of transparent and adequate formal mechanisms of representation and conflict resolution.