'In 1386, young men had to repay the cost of lodging if they left before they finished. Top-ups solve that now'

September 22, 2006

It can be hazardous running an elderly institution such as New College, Oxford, not least when you get curious about what its creator thought the institution was set up to do. It's worse if you have just spent several months rewriting the seriously antiquated statutes that you were bequeathed by the second of the Victorian Royal Commissions into Oxford and Cambridge in 1877. Because commentators always talk as though everything in Oxford is "immemorial" - although both the tutorial system and the modern academic career date from the 1880s - it's a good jolt to the imagination to remember just how recent an invention Oxbridge is. In many ways, Oxford in 1850 had more in common with the Oxford of 1350 than with the Oxford of 2006.

While it is hard to imagine what it was like for a fellow living on £200 a year in 1877, and having to resign if he married within seven years of election, it is much harder to imagine the life of a student in 1386, when the young men had to sign on for five years and agree to repay the cost of their board and lodging if they left before they had finished their course. That's a problem that top-up fees and student loans have solved. Not everything was so different; the founder of New College was a practically minded character who would have got on well enough with Government Ministers Bill Rammell and Alan Johnson.

William of Wykeham was a bishop and dedicated his college to the Virgin Mary; but he was more than a match for the modern vice-chancellor who thinks universities have to be run as businesses. In Wykeham's case, the business was producing persons apt for the service of church and state, especially replacements for the parish clergy depleted during the Black Death; but nonetheless it was a business. He had come from humble origins - his enemies said his father was a butcher - and became one of the richest men in England. He did it on the basis of talent, political deftness - he became Chancellor of England and organised the financing of the Hundred Years War - and survival skills that put John Prescott's in the shade.

So Wykeham knew that businesslike habits were essential. The first thing anyone appointed to the college had to do was to swear to protect and enhance the college's landholdings, its cash, its rights to appoint offices of various kinds, especially to appoint incumbents to parishes, and to increase whatever other resources the college possessed. We still swear the same oath today. And deep in the statutes he buried the provision that should the college get it into its head to do anything that would place extra demands on its income, it should wait until it increased the endowment to provide double the sum the fellows imagined it would cost.

Oxford would have benefited from the founder of New College's advice when it splashed out on its recent disastrous IT exercises - an accounting system that for two years rendered it impossible for anyone to know whether the university was broke, dead broke, slightly broke or just about solvent, and a student database that still cannot work out how many "home/European Union" students we have. Then again, the simplicity of Wykeham's methods for keeping tabs on students would have provoked a few letters to The Times Higher : the college gates were closed at dusk and opened at dawn, and God help anyone on the wrong side - strangers within or students without.

Nor would his assumptions about managerial prerogatives suit those of us who reckon that one of the most basic academic freedoms is the freedom to be rude about our superiors. Wykeham's statutes go on for a dozen pages about the need to punish the recalcitrant - impartially and without favour - by depriving them of their stipends, their food and drink, and whatever other benefits the college provided. It seems that only one fellow actually died as a result of being locked up and left to consider his errors, and that was in the early 1500s.

Thinking of recent excitements in English academic life, the largest absence is any idea of academic freedom in the traditional - that is, in the 19th-century German - sense. Lernfreiheit , the right to study what you like, was entirely squashed by Wykeham's regulations stipulating how many students should study which degrees, and arranging that if there was a shortfall in some subject which students should be transferred to set things straight. Hard to see Baroness Deech approving of that. Nor was Lehrfreiheit - the freedom to teach your own subject according to your own best lights - more in evidence. Godliness and good learning were the object of the exercise, not self-indulgent speculation. As I say, he'd have got on well with the present incumbents at the Department for Education and Skills.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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