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University grandee reaches for his lawyer

A leading member of Oxford University's governing council has alarmed academics by bringing in lawyers to demand an apology from a college head, writes Claire Sanders.

After receiving a letter from libel specialists Carter-Ruck, Roger Ainsworth, master of St Catherine's College, issued an apology to Sir Victor Blank, chair of Lloyds TSB and one of four external members on the council, for comments he made in a letter to the conference of colleges.

At the heart of the matter is a long-running and heated dispute between the university and colleges over funding, in particular how the college fee - or quantum - is distributed between them.

A group of three, consisting of Sir Victor, Professor Ainsworth and Bill Macmillan, pro vice-chancellor for planning and resources at the university, was set up last year to make recommendations.

The dispute centres on a letter sent on June 6 by Sir Victor to John Hood, the vice-chancellor, and Sir Michael Scholar, chair of the conference of colleges, outlining recommendations made by the group of three, and a response to it by Professor Ainsworth.

"I have apologised to Sir Victor and do not wish to make any further comment," Professor Ainsworth said this week. Sir Victor confirmed that the matter was closed.

The matter has caused concern at Oxford, where there is anxiety about Dr Hood's plans to bring more external members on to council.

"Whatever the basis for these legal moves, this seems alarming as this is not the way in which disputes are usually resolved in a university," said Nicholas Bamforth, a law fellow and opponent of Dr Hood's who has just been elected to the university council.

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