When Tradition Meets Modern Law: Changing the Role of the Oxford University Proctors

By Walford, Geoffrey | Research in Education, November 2004 | Go to article overview

When Tradition Meets Modern Law: Changing the Role of the Oxford University Proctors


Walford, Geoffrey, Research in Education


The post of University Proctor at Oxford University dates back some 800 years. Oxford University is unusual in that there is no official date of foundation. The university emerged rather than was created (Southern, 1984). The first signs of scholastic activity were in about 1095, and by the end of the reign of Henry I, in 1135, Oxford was becoming a town in which learned men and students could be found. But it was not until the 119Os that the town was clearly drawing students of canon and Roman law from overseas and regular lectures were being given in law and theology. During the first years of the thirteenth century there were probably 200 or 300 students and masters studying liberal arts, law, theology and perhaps medicine. By 1209 there are references to a 'university', and it may have become a corporate body by 1217 and certainly was by the second quarter of the thirteenth century (Hackett, 1984). King Henry III granted a charter in 1248.

It seems that the office of Proctor (or Taxor) dates back to even before 1209, and the office is apparently the earliest university office at Oxford (Hackett, 1984, p. 82). These two senior administrative officers were first known as Taxors, then Rectors, but by 1248 the title 'Proctor' was being used. The earliest recorded reference to Proctors in the statutes is in 1252, where their primary functions were concerned with the renting of hostels and ensuring that students were not overcharged for rent, drink or food. After the institution of the chancellorship and as the university also acquired corporate status they also acted as a constitutional check on the incumbent's power (Hackett, 1984, p. 82).

The term 'Proctor', and to some extent the role, were derived from Paris, but the Oxford Proctors differed from the French proctors in that they represented the whole university even though they were elected by a part of it. Proctors were elected annually by the northern and southern resident MAs (a division that defies modern logic) through an indirect method of nomination by the senior northern and southern MAs of six electors who then made their choice. From 1350, and probably much before, this had been changed to a system where the MAs elected two nominators, the nominators then chose six MAs, who then chose two Proctors (Hackett, 1984, p. 83). Such simplicity remains the hallmark of Oxford. The earliest Proctor to be identified by name was Roger of Plumptone, who held office in 1267-68.

As the holders of the posts have such an important part to play in the running of the university, there have been many times when the appointments have been contested. In 1534 Henry VIII took over the appointment of the Proctors, believing that unsuitable men had been appointed, and in 1541 ordered that the Proctors should henceforward be appointed by the Chancellor, Vice-chancellor, heads of colleges and doctors (Cross, 1986, p. 132). From 1574 the Proctors were elected by Convocation (all living Oxford MAs), but in 1628 King Charles I imposed that the Proctors should be directly elected by colleges in a prearranged order (Fincham, 1997, p. 199; Hibbert, 1988, p. 340). Originally the larger colleges elected a Proctor more often than the smaller ones, but, as the number of colleges increased, a simple rotation system was developed. In 1960 a new role of 'Representative of the Women's Colleges' was introduced which later was broadened to include representing the graduate-only colleges and renamed 'Assessor'. When the women's colleges started taking men in the 1970s the system was changed again such that the Assessor is elected on the same cycle as that of the Proctors (Howarth, 1994, p. 352). he or she has a somewhat similar role, but with fewer ceremonial and no disciplinary functions, and has a special responsibility for student welfare.

Green College (the college of which I am a Fellow) elected me as Proctor for March 2001 to March 2002, a period during which the statutes of the university were rewritten partly with the aim of bringing the role of the Proctors into line with the Human Rights Act 1998. …

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