Students at the heart of the system

This was, of course, the title of the 2011 White Paper which followed the changes to funding systems in England.  A major theme was that competition, a market, would result in students driving teaching excellence.  It said:

Better informed students will take their custom to the places offering good value for money. In this way, excellent teaching will be placed back at the heart of every student’s university experience (p32).

We now know (but, of course, we knew then) that this hasn’t exactly turned out as the coalition planned.  Given a hefty nudge in 2010/11, not much has changed.  So the government has been nudging ever since.

What if you could imagine a university that was really set up to meet students’ needs? Imagine the organisational structure was built around their fundamental concerns, and that the very regulations were ones that were written by students to ensure that they had an excellent experience?

Such a model exists, or at least existed.  Furthermore it was the first model of university organisation in Europe – the student universities of Italy.

‘Universitas’ meant a guild, the universality of people in a location who belonged to a group.  The first universities were those founded in Bologna to protect and organise students rights in the face of issues both with the scholars who taught them and the townspeople who provided services to them.  Bologna had grown organically as scholars and students gathered together, reaching a critical mass far greater than the normal pattern of a lone scholar who attracted students.  Students organised themselves into universities – two of them, one for students from Italy and one for those from outside, with elected rectors.  The rules they wrote for themselves were sparse, but included prohibitions against using weapons.  However, their rules for the scholars were quite extensive, show signs of issues they were facing, and which might still resonate today.  Rashdall described them:

The doctors were compelled, under pain of a ban which would have deprived them of pupils and income, to swear obedience to the students’ rector, and to obey any other regulations which the universities might think fit to impose on them…

A professor requiring leave of absence even for a single day was compelled to obtain it first from his own pupils…

The professor was obliged to begin his lecture when the bells of S.Peter’s began to ring for mass, under a penalty of 20 solidi for each offence … while he is forbidden to continue his lecture one minute after the bell has begun to ring for tierce…

The regulations included strictures about the curriculum; ensuring that the students were taught all the parts that they would be examined on.

This is not the model that northern European universities were founded on.  They were communities of masters and scholars and authority was differently vested. Over time the power of the students in Italy waned, a key factor being that they had too much control, particularly over the town.

If the university had a struggle with the town, it could (and often did) exercise its absolute market power and leave the town. Towns had got used to the revenues, and encouraged the universities back.  In time they evolved means to support the university so it would stay, and that resulted in powers accumulating to the commune.


A lecture by Henry the German by Laurentius de Voltolina

A key power of the students lay in their payment of fees to the masters. In order to encourage stability, the commune of Bologna moved to supplement the masters fees; binding them to the city. Kibre recounts the changes:

In the reform measures of the ‘Consiglio del popolo’, for January 1317, provision had been made for three lecturers who would give the extraordinary lectures in civil and canon law and on the practice of medicine. … Provision was also made for the increased salary of another master, the lecturer on Rhetoric… This money was to be derived from the tax on wine. …

By 1416 salaries were being paid from the tax on silk-worms (or if insufficient that on fish).  Slowly the powers of the students had been reduced so that by the fifteenth century the university was in fact being run by the doctors and professors.

So, imagine a university run on student fees, where the students’ rector held power over the staff, who controlled the teaching and even the appointment of the professors.  Just look back over 900 years ago, when the first universities were much more like students unions.


Kibre, P, 1961, Scholarly Privileges in the Middle Ages, London, Mediaeval Academy of America

Rashdall, H, 1936, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, Vol 1, Oxford, Oxford University Press


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