Oxford University to stop politicians becoming chancellor, leaked email shows

Lord Patten in his academic robes, with students following, one carrying the hem of his gown
Lord Patten of Barnes is stepping down as chancellor of Oxford University - Leon Neal/Getty
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Politicians will be barred from standing to be Oxford University’s new chancellor, following a ruling by the institution’s governing body that breaks with 300 years of tradition.

In an email sent to Oxford academics and leaked to this newspaper, Gillian Aitken, the university’s registrar, said that a panel of dons and administrators would block “members of legislatures or those active in politics” from the race to succeed Lord Patten of Barnes.

The extraordinary ruling, emanating from the university’s council, prompted fury from senior Conservatives and reignited a major row over changes to the election process, which have been labelled a “stitch-up” by some MPs.

The criteria set out by Ms Aitken, a former senior civil servant, would appear to rule out Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Imram Khan, all of whom have been touted as possible contenders for the role.

Mrs May has said that she plans to stand down as an MP at the election but will continue to campaign for the Conservatives, as Mr Johnson is also expected to do during a general election campaign. They could therefore be considered to be “active in politics”.

The criteria outlined to staff might also have excluded Lord Patten, a member of the House of Lords and former Conservative chairman, along with each of his predecessors since 1715, including Harold Macmillan and Roy Jenkins, all of whom were involved in politics.

Rory Stewart standing in his London home last year
Rory Stewart, former MP, is tipped as a possible chancellor - Andrew Crowley

A Tory source said the rule would appear to favour Rory Stewart, another possible contender who stood down as an MP in 2019 and now presents a podcast.

Hours after being contacted by The Telegraph on Saturday, an Oxford University spokesman appeared to row back from Ms Aitken’s email, saying that individuals would only be barred if they planned to be an “elected member of a legislature during their term as our next chancellor”, following Lord Patten’s departure this summer.

The spokesman said the intention had “always been” just to prevent “elected representatives” from standing – meaning that peers would apparently be eligible, as long as they were not “active in politics”.

Damian Green, the former de facto deputy prime minister and a friend of Mrs May from their days at the University of Oxford, described the criteria outlined by Ms Aitken as “a momentous and ill-advised change which at the very least should have been consulted on”.

He added: “Top universities around the world seem to be determined to alienate mainstream opinion.”

Sir Anthony Seldon, the historian and former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, warned that the chancellor “has to be the best”.

Sir Anthony, an Oxford graduate who has written biographies of a series of former prime ministers, said: “We have got a system that has worked well for many years and I wouldn’t be tampering with it.

“I’m not in favour of filters or anyone second-guessing what the electorate might choose. I think this will generate mistrust”.

He added: “Politicians, although much derided, are pretty good at trade-offs and coming to sensible pragmatic solutions.

“They are good at handling the media and they are good at judging public opinion. They also have the international contacts. I would not be excluding them.”

Sir Anthony Seldon pictured at the University of Buckingham
Sir Anthony Seldon said he would 'not rule out' politicians for the job - Rii Schroer

A Conservative source accused the university of “making it up as they go along, saying one thing in public and another in private”.

Ms Aitken’s email to academics, sent on Wednesday, attempted to quell concerns over new rules for the coming election, under which a committee of academics and university administrators, including the vice-chancellor, will decide which candidates are eligible to be put forward to a vote.

In doing so, they will consider “the principles of equality and diversity and the approved role specification” – a factor which the university denied was designed to rig the vote in order to elect its first female chancellor.

Previously, anyone could stand for election if they were nominated by 50 members of Convocation, which includes all Oxford graduates and academics.

In a letter to The Times last week, Irene Tracey, Oxford’s vice-chancellor, insisted that the committee responsible for checking candidates “will only be ensuring those who are put forward to the vote are eligible; there will be no sifting of suitability”.

“This will therefore be the most open and democratic election of a chancellor in our history,” she insisted.

Irene Tracey pictured in Oxford in January
Irene Tracey, the university's vice-chancellor, wrote to The Times last week - John Lawrence

But, behind the scenes, Ms Aitken’s email revealed the new restriction on politicians for the first time, stating: “The eligibility criteria will rule out candidates with conflicts of interest or circumstances which are incompatible with the role including for example, current students, those in dispute with the university, employees, members of Council and members of legislatures or those active in politics.”

An Oxford University spokesman said: “The specific details of the eligibility criteria, which reflect standards that apply to charity trustees or public office, will be published in due course.

“Individuals will not be eligible if they are expected or aiming to be an elected member of a legislature during their term as our next chancellor.

“If a Member of Parliament or councillor has announced they are standing down at the next election they could be considered as eligible by the election committee, chaired by Lord Reed, High Steward of Oxford University, subject to any other conflict of interest that is considered as being incompatible with the role.

“This would be considered by the committee when applications had closed. We look forward to receiving applications from a wide variety of inspiring people from across society.”

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