Rules for the House of Wisdom

Higher education endures. For all the talk of avalanches and market exit, there is a tremendous continuity in HE and its institutions. Chief witness to that is our ancient universities.

Part of that continuity is the ‘student experience’ – sometimes harder to capture than other aspects, but still there. My favourite tool for demonstrating this are the regulations for the Collegium Sapientiae.

It’s worth remembering that other European universities had collegiate structures; the Sorbonne became synonymous with the University of Paris, but it was a college. The Collegium Sapientiae was founded by the 1497 will of Johannes Kerer, who’d been involved in the university of Freiburg since its foundation in 1457.

The content of the regulations is broadly consistent with other sets, but these differ in two main regards. First is their comprehensiveness; they contain a fulsome description of the rules and the rationale behind them. Secondly, and this is my favourite part, they are illustrated. Most of the individual regulations come with a picture. This means they must be among the most beautiful university regulations.

The college closed, but the university remains proud of the regulations. I first spotted them on a visit to the university museum. However, serendipitously I later saw the facsimile edition on display in Mainz. Published in 1957 this is a full reproduction accompanied by a transcribed version of the Latin text and an English translation. Here are a few…


The rules on admission are clear:

Only those who were born in wedlock can be admitted to our house. Our doors may not be opened to those who are married or who live in a state of bigamy; to those who are apostates, blasphemers or to persons of quarrelsome nature, to those who suffer from serious or chronic diseases, those who are feeble in body, to vagabonds, unchaste persons or those who have a sullied reputation…

However, there is a clear mission here:

But our House is open to those who are poor, talented and who thirst for wisdom.

Accommodation rules

There’s a full suite of regulations for the rooms, their allocation, furniture & inventories.

The President shall show a newcomer to his room. He shall also require the candidate thus selected to make up a list of the furnishings within that room, so that when he takes his departure he may be made accountable for them.

Student Conduct

The restrictions on students were considerable. Examples include:

We strictly forbid any form of revelry within our House. Neither shall our scholars indulge in drinking and feasting in inns, where every vice is permissible. We want the scholars of our House to abstain from all such vices and to indulge their youthful high spirits without the stimulus of alcohol…

As very often wickedness steals into the pure hearts of young men under the cover of respectability and hilarity, we allow of no musical instruments within our House. …

Dice, cards, and sticks for casting lots and all games of chance are forbidden. … Chess, however, is allowed.

Learning and Teaching

The college had rules to support students at university. The students had extra disputations in the college, and rules provided extra support for students who needed extra time to complete.

Continuous studying produces choice blooms, but interruptions necessarily result in a downfall. We hereby ordain that every occupant of our House shall attend his lectures, above all the normal ones, attentively and without interruption, with the help of his own book or one that has been lent him – for he who learns without a book, ladles water with a sieve. …

Penalty system

With all these rules, there needed to be a system of penalties for transgression. There’s a fine tariff system; some with specific targeted penalties but many based around the removal of wine for a specified number of days.

As an example, being caught speaking in the vernacular the punishment is loss of your eighth of a litre of wine. Entering the room of other scholars is punished by loss of wine for a week. The first failure to make your bed results in the removal of wine, but if there’s repeated offence then ‘the scholar in question shall be deprived of his bed’.


Kerer, J, 1497, Statuta Collegii Sapientiae Facsimile Edition Ed Beckmann 1957 Jan Thorbecke Verla Lindau & Konstanz

Adventures of a young academic registrar 

Waiting for the ‘major review of university funding and student finances’ brings to mind the last proper review, the Dearing Review, 20 years ago. Having also spent time perusing HEFCE circulars from the 1990s looking for details of MASN, I’ve been quite nostalgic this term.  20 years ago I was in my first year as an Academic Registrar and these were exciting times.  So I’ve looked up my notebooks to try and capture what was going on in autumn term 1997.

My notebooks record a busy term. There was the normal business of King Alfred’s College (now the University of Winchester) – professorial appointments, student disciplinary hearings, committees etc.  Layered onto that was the prospect of change brought on by the Dearing Report and the impact on the college as it looked forward to gaining university status.


The scope of the Dearing review was huge.  In addition to the issue of fees, the report had implications for all parts of the sector.  In October Ron Dearing gave the Fawley Lecture at Southampton, framing the notion of the learning society and how higher education played a key role.  In all the talk of change, Dearing stressed the enduring purposes of higher education, closing his lecture with the same Masefield quote that had been in the introduction to the report.

‘It is a place where those who hate ignorance may strive to know, where those who perceive truth may strive to make others see; where seekers and learners alike, banded together in the search for knowledge, will honour thought in all its finer ways, will welcome thinkers in distress or in exile, will uphold ever the dignity of thought and learning and will exact standards in these things.’

By December details of the structure of the QAA were emerging, with the Gloucester location settled upon and a staffing structure agreed.  Dearing set a huge agenda for the new agency though and much was still under active discussion, including the plans to create a register of external examiners.

Quality Assessment

In addition to a re-accreditation exercise by the University of Southampton, the college was dominated by the then HEFCE teaching quality assessment process.  Using the graded profile method this precursor of TEF actually visited institutions; watching teaching and sampling work.  My notes record the arrangements for the visits.  One planning meeting genuinely started with a discussion of the state of the Gents toilet and that the whole building needed washing.

Then there was the grand theatre of the feedback meeting.  The ‘scores’ for the graded profile were announced, the goal (at that stage) to ensured the provision was approved (by gaining 3 in each section) and then to maximise the reputational gain by getting as many 4 grades as possible.    Much hung on those six scores.  Notes of one feedback meeting record the mixture of criticism – especially on the lack of self-criticism (the self-assessment was ‘clear but bland’) – with praise for high quality teaching.

Looking Forward

Ron Barnett’s inaugural lecture in November started with the cheerful claim that the western university was dead.  Helpfully, out of a ‘constellation of fragility’ it could be re-born.   If the university adopted an ethos of collective self-irony, it stood a chance.  He raised the issue of supercomplexity and how the university must create uncertainty, especially in its teaching.

Issues in 1997 are very similar: in the institution it was about matching curriculum to student demand, structuring the academic year, matching staff workloads to RAE requirements etc. Outside, the issues of funding, autonomy and relevance were being shaped.  However, Ron Dearing was right, higher education endures.