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The United Kingdom’s Charity Commission has told University of Oxford colleges to change and modernize how they run themselves, Times Higher Education has learned. The directive was issued, after one college’s tumultuous, costly battle to oust its former dean and another college’s response to a rape allegation raised concerns about institutional governing bodies.


The Charity Commission, which is the equivalent of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, wrote to the colleges—which, as charities, are registered with the commission and regulated by it—in the autumn. In a statement, the commission said it was in “positive, constructive” talks with the colleges.

However, a separate source outside the Charity Commission, said the commission had “required each college to produce a proposal for reformed governance in the coming months, or face investigation”—an initiative they said “has not been met well [by colleges] and has been very controversial internally.” Colleges have been “managed historically more as gentlemen’s clubs than modern charities,” they added.

The Charity Commission’s intervention is said to have been triggered by Christ Church college’s expensive four-year battle to oust its former dean Martyn Percy, who eventually stepped down with a reported nearly $1.6 million pay-off, and by Lady Margaret Hall college’s reported failure to make a “serious incident” notification to the commission after a former student alleged she was raped by another student.

The Charity Commission issued an official warning to Christ Church in November 2022 “after finding that the trustees failed to manage the charity’s resources responsibly”—prompting Christ Church to set up a review of its governance—and has since decided there are wider issues common to all Oxford colleges.

The commission’s concerns are said to center on the large size of Oxford college governing bodies—typically made up of all full fellows of a college, with no external members—and the implications for the quality of debate and scrutiny. Governing body members are also trustees of the charity, with the commission thought to be concerned by the fact that some colleges thus have 100-plus trustees, a potential challenge to aspects of a charity’s operations.

Further concerns are thought to include the potential for conflicts of interest on Oxford college governing bodies—given that fellows are both college employees and charity trustees—along with colleges’ perceived limited focus on the public benefit required of charities.

The Charity Commission is understood to be pushing for all Oxford colleges to adopt the model followed already by larger numbers of Cambridge colleges: creating 12-strong college councils—in which the charity trusteeships are located—above the larger governing bodies.

“We are having positive, constructive discussions across Oxford colleges as they look to strengthen governance,” a Charity Commission spokesperson said. “We welcome the sensible steps colleges are taking, building on lessons learned from our intervention at Christ Church and ensuring their administration is fit for modern charitable purposes.”

The Conference of Colleges, the association of Oxford colleges, said in a statement: “The colleges of the university work hard to ensure effective governance in order to enable educational and academic excellence. We recognize the need to refine and improve our approach when appropriate. To this end, the Conference of Colleges established last year a governance forum in which best practice and improvements could be discussed, and is engaged in useful dialogue with the Charity Commission and others.”

The legal battle at Christ Church—in which the college tried to oust Reverend Percy over allegations of sexual harassment, which he strenuously denied—caused deep concern at the highest levels of the university. The theologian claimed he was the victim of internal plotting by dons who opposed his efforts to modernize safeguarding practices.

After the Charity Commission’s warning, Christ Church set up a review of its governance that recommended that the leadership of the college should be opened up to candidates from outside the clergy for the first time since Henry VIII created Christ Church in 1546.

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