Higher education postcard: University of Oxford

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’ postbag takes us to the city of dreaming spires

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

Greetings from Oxford!

Oxford is a proper mediaeval university, founded well before the modern state existed. Let’s reflect on how higher learning must have worked when the institutions which exist today were simply not there. If you wanted to learn, you would have to find someone to teach you.

And just as students would want to go to where there were people to teach them, so also scholars who wished to teach would – unless they were tied to a religious order – want to go where there would be students to pay them. And this is the context for Oxford’s claim that there was teaching in some form at Oxford in 1096. Now, fair play, that’s quite a long time ago.

Things got properly kick-started in 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the just-established University of Paris. This meant that there was a real incentive for scholars and students to gather in Oxford, and they did. And not just from England – in 1190 Emo of Friesland studied in Oxford, becoming its first international student (Emo also studied at Paris and Orleans before returning to his home in what is now the Netherlands).

This was all still on an informal footing. There were students, there were scholars – but was it recognised? By 1201 there was recognition of sorts: a recognised head scholar, who in 1214 was given the title of chancellor. And in 1231 the scholars were recognised formally as a universitas – a separate corporate body. This gave them legal power over the members of the university.

So we now have students, scholars, and status. The only thing missing from the Oxford we know today are the colleges, and these started arriving in 1249, with the establishment of University College. Today there are 39 colleges in the university, each housing students and providing teaching. More fascinating are the fictional colleges of the university: 11 in Philip Pullman’s works, 23 in Inspector Morse mysteries, seven in Jude the Obscure, and four in Loss and Gain by John Henry, Cardinal Newman.

Formally speaking, the university is “the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford”. The card shows the university, and some of the colleges, but probably not all of the chancellor, masters and scholars.

A fun game for those familiar with Oxford – how many of the colleges and university buildings can you see on the card?

4 responses to “Higher education postcard: University of Oxford

  1. Thanx for this.

    John Henry Newman was cannonised in 2019, so if he is to have an ecclesiastical title is should be saint.

  2. A fascinating feature of the early European Us was that the first was a student-consumer run entity – at Bologna the students were in charge. By the time Paris was created power & authority lay with the Masters and that model was copied at Oxford and Cambridge; student-consumerism not to reappear until in a very weak form within English Us over the past decade.

    And a key driver of the creation of the U in Western Europe was the influx of knowledge and texts from China, India, and the Arab world, coming along the Silk Road with other commodities.

    As Hasting & Rashdell comment the Middle Ages gave us not just the great cathedrals but also the concept of the University, the idea and ideal of which changes over the centuries but the underlying structure remains largely and globally consistent – degrees, maces, gowns, lectures, terms, fees, libraries, professors, faculties, subjects, disciplines, etc.

    See ‘Universities & Colleges: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, 2017).

Leave a Reply