Oxbridge Legal Heads: the rise of the barrister-principal

Why Oxbridge colleges are increasingly recruiting Heads of House from the Bar’s ranks: barrister-principals Helen Mountfield QC, Lord Grabiner, John Bowers QC and Sir Ernest Ryder explain the role, its delights and the impact


 

Helen Mountfield QC

Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford

Helen Mountfield is the Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford, well known for its work in broadening participation in higher education. Last year 96% of its home undergraduates were from state schools and over 31% from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Over 40% of Mansfield’s offer holders come from the most disadvantaged educational and socio-economic backgrounds in the UK, compared with 15% of the Oxford applicant pool. Mansfield is also home to the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, which opened in September 2018.

The tradition of promoting fair access and the strong human rights ethos are what attracted Helen to Mansfield. While in full-time practice at the Bar, she specialised in equality, education and human rights law, and ‘when I first met the tutors here, it felt like home’. This is one of Oxford’s newer colleges, without a massive endowment or huge landholdings, so she has no comfortable laurels to rest on. ‘But there is a real buzz about this place: it’s on the up and up. There’s such a shared sense of pride in what we are achieving. So this job is a real project,’ she says.

‘I’ve always been interested in fairness, which is probably what led me to a career in the law. But justice is about more than just applying rules fairly; it’s about asking whose rules are applied, and how they affect different people in different ways. And it’s about finding ways to help people whose perspectives have traditionally been marginalised to have their voices fairly heard and taken into account.’

Helen thinks that widening participation is a ‘matter of enlightened self-interest’ for Oxbridge and other elite universities: ‘To be at the cutting edge of academic discovery, they need to attract talent, ideas and perspectives from a broad pool. Twenty years ago, Mansfield lurked towards the bottom of the Oxford league table,’ she says, ‘but as our intake has diversified, results have steadily improved. Last year, we were fifth. It shows what I have always believed. If you bring in people with diverse experiences and ways of thinking, who challenge one another’s assumptions, you promote intellectual creativity.’

How has it been moving from chambers to quad? The shift, for Helen, has mainly been from being a full-time advocate herself, to helping students become their own advocates. ‘I like doing less of the talking,’ she laughs – though in fact she is still busy in practice at the Bar, and last year won a case before a seven-judge Supreme Court.

‘Finding ways to ensure “all manner of people” are heard fairly was what fascinated me about the law. But there is more than one way to achieve that. It’s wonderful to help clever and motivated young people create their own narratives and ideas,’ she says. After a stressful term in which all teaching has been online, and dealing with the fall-out from COVID and the righteous outrage following the death of George Floyd, Helen says that the students ‘give me hope’.

She has been helping them channel their Black Lives Matter campaigning work to making achievable demands for sustained institutional change. ‘Our students are right to be angry that academia, like the law, is so overwhelmingly white. I’ve been encouraging them to think about practical steps we should take to do something about it. One small step we have already taken has been to review our library holdings, to make sure we have strong, up to date and well signposted collections on equality and race in all subjects, with suggestions crowd-sourced from students and academics. We are also building graduate scholarship programmes and promoting career pathways for people of colour into academic careers, in which they are seriously underrepresented. It’s about creating a cultural framework within which people can feel safe and supported while they learn to explore ideas, and to create their own social capital.’

Are there any immediate challenges for leaders in the higher education sector? ‘What, apart from COVID, the funding crisis, travel bans, Brexit…?’ She pauses. ‘We need to think urgently about how to combine free speech and respect for difference. That’s something students sometimes need to think through, in a world of filter-bubbles, where the easiest way to deal with ideas which are challenging is to block them.

‘We need to challenge received ways of thinking, but also to hear diverse voices. It’s very important to me that students understand why it is important to engage with ideas they disagree with.’

Many of the skills she has learned as a barrister have been helpful in the transition to head of house. Understanding institutions and rules is useful, but much more important is understanding people, and how they can communicate so as to get the best from one another. ‘It’s such a great job. I love watching students come in unsure of who they are, and leave as self-confident, brave adults, with clear ideas about what they want to achieve in the world. I absolutely love it.’ 


 

 

Lord Grabiner

Master of Clare College, Cambridge

There does seem to be some evidence of a trend for Oxbridge colleges to elect QCs as Heads of House. That said there have, over many years, been similar trends involving other professional disciplines.

Historically, the Master of the College was an academic, usually elected by his – they were rarely, if ever, women – peers from among the College Fellowship (C P Snow’s 1951 novel The Masters, set in 1937, brilliantly captures the era). At other times, lately retired senior civil servants and ambassadors were a regular choice, presumably because of their assumed administrative and diplomatic skills. In recent years, senior media people, particularly ex BBC, have been popular choices. Perhaps colleges felt the need to be more savvy in the public relations and media aspects of higher education.

Whatever the background of the elected person, it is essential that they should be well informed and wholly enthusiastic about higher education, academia and the student world. 

In my case, I started postgraduate life as an academic lawyer, first at the LSE where I had been a student and then at Queen Mary College in the Mile End Road. As a result I was able to afford to go the Bar. Many years later I became a Governor of the LSE and then served for nine years as Chairman of the Court of Governors. I have always been familiar with our university regulatory structure and I have taken a keen interest in the associated public policy debates. I assume that my background and experience, particularly as LSE Chairman, influenced the Fellows of Clare College when they decided to elect me as Master. 

The College Head chairs the key committees: Governing Body, Council, Fellowship, Finance, Investment, Development and Alumni Relations and so on. Chairmanship qualities are an important part of the office. Participants in these meetings need to have a proper opportunity to express themselves and decisions should be reached after sensible deliberation. At the same time, debate should not ramble on unnecessarily because everybody has other things to deal with. It is dangerous to generalise but I suspect that the legal training and experience of a QC naturally lends itself to sound chairing qualities.

From time to time, the Head of House may be required to mediate differences which have arisen between Fellows or, in a federated structure like Cambridge, with another college or with the University. I am sure that colleges which have elected QCs in recent years have had these points in mind.

An experienced barrister will usually have the ability to digest complicated and unfamiliar paperwork at speed. Typically, every college caters for all the disciplines across the arts and sciences. There is also a wide range of regulation affecting access, student health, in particular mental health, student finance, educational standards, freedom of speech issues, accommodation, outreach and so on. The regulatory arrangements have never been more complex than they now are and they do give rise to matters of law, judgment and interpretation.

As to the role itself, my appointment is part time. It takes up about half my working week in term time. I think that is fairly typical in Cambridge. In Oxford the appointment is mostly full time. There must be historical reasons for that. This has enabled me to retain my law practice on a reduced basis and I do enjoy the mix of my week. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on Cambridge life in every way. In March, before the end of term, we had no choice but to invite students to leave Cambridge and return to their homes. The vast majority were able to do so but a small number of overseas students were unable to do so and remained. 

I am writing this piece at the end of April, as the new terms begins. There is face-to-face teaching but it is all being conducted online. We expect these arrangements to continue at least for the rest of the term. There will be no A-level exams this year and applicants to Cambridge and other universities will have to be assessed by their schools and the regulator for October entry. It may even be the case that there will be no physical matriculation for students due to arrive in October and that teaching will continue to be done online because of the persistence of the virus. Thankfully, the technology has proved to be very effective but sadly our students are currently unable to enjoy the traditional camaraderie of being physically present at their university. 

All UK universities are now confronted with serious financial concerns. My college is very dependent on vacation conference revenue. Because of the virus all the Easter vacation income and the anticipated summer cash flow will not arrive. Also, if students are not in residence we will obviously not be able to charge for their accommodation. These are very challenging times. 

That said, we have to be resolute and optimistic. This horror will pass and life as we know it will be restored – hopefully sooner rather than later.


 

 

John Bowers QC

Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford

I loved nearly every minute of being a barrister but approaching 60, the time had come to make a change. I also felt that I knew more and more about less and less; what I call super specialism. We were not employment lawyers anymore, but discrimination and TUPE lawyers or whatever. I did not want to be one of those to whom the young pointed as they sat in Middle Temple Common Room and whispered, ‘He used to be a top barrister once upon a time.’

The Brasenose role was advertised and there were, I believe, about 70 applicants. I have loved every minute of being Principal (although responding to the COVID-19 epidemic has been stretching). One thing I got very little of at the Bar was international travel, mine being a domestic legal area, save for trips to the CJEU and ECtHR. Before COVID struck I did a lot of that as Principal, including frequent visits to the USA and Far East.

There are so many different aspects of the job and I love the variety. One day may be ceremonial, for example Encaenia (Greek for a festival of renewal) where we process in mortar boards and gowns around Radcliffe Square preceded by a beadle with a mace for a ceremony in Latin. The next day I might be speaking to schools in disadvantaged areas trying to improve access. Another day may focus on dealing with our college endowment, eg seeking planning permission to develop land. There is also a great deal of chairing committee meetings and experience as a judge or head of chambers is very useful. Like barristers, Fellows may be individualistic, of strong views and occasionally idiosyncratic.

I am often the public face of college with students; I think of myself as like a football manager gaining undeserved praise and equally undeserved brickbats. The buck stops with me. As Kissinger once said: ‘There cannot be a crisis next week, my schedule is already FULL.’

I think there have always been legal Heads of House but there is, perhaps, in more recent years a greater recognition of the legalisation of higher education since students and their parents are increasingly seen as consumers. They are less reserved about resorting to legal remedies. My college was for a while a defendant in a case where a student complained that he had not gained a First.

One of my predecessors was Herbert Hart whose Concept of Law remains a set text some 45 years after it was written. He practised at the Bar for a few years but was primarily an academic. The second Master of Wolfson College Oxford was Sir Henry Fisher who stepped down early as a High Court judge to take the role. There are presently six legal Heads in Oxford.

I knew that I had a massive learning curve when first appointed (and indeed ever since). I had only dealt with academics occasionally in practice when we were (unusually) on the same legal teams. But I did not have a feel for their everyday lives, their frustrations and what they love about their job (most of them really do adore it and would do nothing else).

Skills I gained as a mediator also come in very useful. Occasionally I need to resolve disputes. I use my legal skills as Chair of the Conference of Colleges Law Panel, which seeks to identify issues which may apply to many different colleges. We do not give legal advice as such.

In some respects, the role is similar to being head of chambers and I doubt I could have done it without the 18 months I served as Joint Head of Littleton Chambers. I am decidedly not a chief executive; if anything, the chair of the board or, as someone said, ‘last amongst equals’. I have no power but the power to persuade. I am expected to set strategy but not get down to the minutiae of day-to-day operations.

A keen awareness of what should be discussed in committee and what in Governing Body and an ability to interpret college statutes and byelaws is also helpful. Many issues of employment law and occasionally discrimination come up. Relationships may be even more intense in a college than in chambers; we often eat together breakfast, lunch and dinner and encounter one another at meetings too during the day and events in the evening.

Being head of Brasenose is a full-time job (different colleges might have different approaches) so I don’t have much time for practice. I had three cases which I could not properly pull out of when I became Principal. Amazingly, one is still going on. I occasionally do opinions and an odd hearing but only out of term time. I also sit as a Deputy High Court judge mainly in the Administrative Court and Employment Appeal Tribunal, again out of term.

I am, I believe, the first state-school educated Principal of Brasenose and I come from a part of the country that is generally underrepresented in university admissions. Improving access is a central feature of my Principalship and we have vastly improved the representation of state school students to just under 80%. This has been achieved by our school outreach work, the UNIQ summer schools and recognising potential more than polish. I am also involved in a charity in the secondary school sector.

Although the press (and some MPs) love to attack Oxford colleges on access, we do try very hard with a dedicated schools liaison officer going into schools and organising for schools to visit Oxford. Connections between school students and our own students are the best conduit; in many ways our students are our best ambassadors to school students. The Fellows do their bit too.

Equality in a university is clearly crucial – academic excellence has to be predicated on ensuring that candidates with the most potential have equal opportunity, regardless of background. If we are missing talent, we are failing to secure the most promising students. Brasenose and the wider university offer an extraordinary education for the public benefit and it is important that this goes to the most talented and committed students, not disproportionately to the already privileged or simply the best prepared, or most polished.

By the same token we must not discriminate against those from public schools or allow the impression to take hold that they are not welcome to apply. My digital postbag is as full with people (including alumni) who complain that their grandchildren cannot get in because we are positively discriminating against them, as it is replete with people attacking us for not taking enough students from state schools. While it is tempting to say that if we are attacked from both sides it shows we are doing something right, I do not think this would be wise. We must do more. We are public bodies and have public responsibilities which we do take seriously.

Diversity is also vital and we have increased the number of female Fellows markedly in the last five years. We are, however, limited in what we can do and how fast we can do it by the fact that few Fellowships are likely to become vacant in any one year, we must appoint on academic merit and the majority of any appointment panel are university (and not college) appointments. We do our best to seek to ensure that appointment panels are aware of our keen interest in diversity and put forward our ideas to ensure we get the widest field (eg by outreach). We have introduced Brasenose’s first diversities week and an annual equality lecture. I attend the informal diversity breakfast of interested Heads of House to discuss matters of common concern on the equality agenda.

I also made student welfare a priority at the start of my appointment and we have introduced a college counsellor largely due to delays elsewhere. We hold regular welfare lunches. The welfare issue is intractable and it is not difficult to understand why it has burgeoned so much in recent years.


 

 

Sir Ernest Ryder

Master-elect of Pembroke College, Oxford

Senior lawyers and judges are recognised for the skills they can bring to the higher education table. They are not alone in this, of course, but they demonstrate, and regularly exercise, the skills and abilities necessary for leadership in the sector. Governance, critical thinking, risk assessment, communication and engagement and decision-making are commonplace among those lawyers who have led chambers and practice teams. For the senior judiciary, analysis of fair process, the decision-making of others and the merits of alternative solutions to problems are part of our day-to-day work. Perhaps of most significance is the ability to listen, have empathy with the circumstances of people from very different backgrounds and to balance different values while trying to achieve excellence and access to education.

I was fortunate enough to see something of the outside world while earning money to train for the Bar. I was a graduate trainee in a merchant bank and an army officer long before I was a junior barrister. The practical experience of leading others has stood me in very good stead. Leadership grounds you and requires you to question yourself about whether the way you perform your job will earn you the trust, respect and confidence that being a barrister or judge requires. As I moved to being a silk, running a practice team and contributing to a large public inquiry as one of the counsel to the inquiry, I built on those skills in a way which was very important to being a senior judge. Having the confidence to engage in strategic debate and collaborative discussions with policy and operational officials in government, while remaining fiercely independent of governments of all persuasions, has allowed me to run the largest part of the justice system. This kind of practical experience is as valuable in higher education as it is in the law.

Universities and colleges are nurturing the talent of the future and can readily identify how the skills of a lawyer can benefit their students. In turn, students expect their leaders and teachers to have an understanding of how they might seek to influence the real world and to help them develop their skills to use them to best effect.

We are not short of talent, but we use our resources to identify it, nurture it and support as many pupils as we can. Pembroke College has set up the OxNet programme which works intensively with state schools to help talented pupils raise their attainment, introduce them to Oxford-style learning and prepare them for applications. The programme is not dedicated to Oxford; it helps students from the state sector and those who are disadvantaged achieve their potential and get a place at university. There is an urgent need to do more, as anyone who has participated in this or similar schemes will tell you, but we are an inclusive community and we aim to engage with talented pupils from all backgrounds to encourage them to consider Oxbridge.

Legal heads of Oxbridge colleges (recent and current) include:
Dame Elish Angiolini DBE QC FRSE – Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford (2012-)
Michael Beloff QC – President of Trinity College, Oxford (1996-2006)
John Bowers QC – Principal of Brasenose College, Oxford (2015-)
Lord Tony Grabiner QC – Master of Clare College, Cambridge (2014-)
Helena Kennedy QC – Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford (2011-18)
Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University (2018-)
Lord Ken Macdonald QC – Warden of Wadham College, Oxford (2012-)
Helen Mountfield QC – Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford (2018-)
Professor Nicola Padfield QC (Hon) – Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge (2013-19)
Dinah Rose QC – President of Magdalen College, Oxford (2020-)
Sir Ernest Ryder – Master of Pembroke College, Oxford (2020-)
Jane Stapleton QC (Hon) – Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge (2016-)
Derek Wood QC – Principal of St Hugh’s College, Oxford (1991-2002)

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