In the news: Onora O'Neill

Some of Cambridge University's more mischievous dons have noted that Newnham College principal Onora O'Neill is well qualified to give this year's Reith lectures on the subject of accountability and the cynicism that is damaging trust in Britain's public professions.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengrave has been on the receiving end of such cynicism as a member of Cambridge's governing council during the Capsa fiasco, when the university wasted millions on the bungled implementation of a new financial accounting system. The blame was laid at the feet of the council, as the university's primary governing authority with responsibility for administration and managing resources.

In the first of the BBC lecture series, which began last week, she argued that a general reverence for public accountability and transparency, and the accompanying deluge of inspectors, auditors and regulators so beloved of new Labour, had fostered a climate of suspicion that risked destroying trust in public professions such as university managers.

Nevertheless, her lectures are winning her fans among university staff suffering under league tables, performance indicators and audits. She even won acclaim in the Sun , which "welcomed this debate on cynicism in public life".

She was born in Northern Ireland in 1941 and educated in Germany, where her father was a diplomat, before going to St Paul's girls school in London. She studied philosophy on a scholarship at Somerville College, Oxford, and gained her doctorate from Harvard, before teaching at Columbia University in New York. Returning to Britain in 1977, she took a post teaching philosophy at Essex University, where she held a chair before taking over as principal of Newnham in 1992.

She is a divorced mother with one child, and her hobbies are "walking and talking with companions".

Phil Baty

Already registered?

Sign in now if you are already registered or a current subscriber. Or subscribe for unrestricted access to our digital editions and iPad and iPhone app.

Register to continue  

You've enjoyed reading five THE articles this month. Register now to get five more, or subscribe for unrestricted access.

Most Commented

  • Woman taking homeopathic medicine

Alternative treatments in healthcare plan is latest in a series of homeopathy-related controversies

  • Man lying beneath rugby pile-up

Six academics share their experiences before delivering a verdict on the system

  • Zygmunt Bauman with hand over mouth

Eminent sociologist has recycled 90,000 words of material across a dozen books, claims paper

  • Foot about to step on banana peel

Kevin Haggerty and Aaron Doyle offer tips on making postgraduate study even tougher (which students could also use to avoid pitfalls if they prefer)

  • Sorana Vieru, National Union of Students

Sorana Vieru says exams and essays 'privilege' more advantaged students, calls for changes to 'Middle Ages' format