Higher Education Strategy Associates

Notes on Medieval Higher Education Finance

No Ving Rhames/Pulp Fiction jokes (you were thinking it, you know you were).  Just a couple of interesting tales from about the high middle ages to show that in fact there is almost no tale under the sun in higher education which isn’t seven or eight centuries old.

Student loans.  Though the tradition of providing aid to worthy but needy students as a gift (i.e. bursaries) has a history almost as old as universities themselves, the concept of lending money to students – both commercially and at concessionary rates – is nearly as old.  In thirteenth century Oxford, lending to students by local loan-sharks was considered sufficiently predatory that King Henry III issued a decree limiting interest on loans to two pennies per week per every twenty shillings one pound lent (which works out to a rate of forty-three percent).  To keep students away from such lenders, Oxford encouraged the creation of endowments whose funds could be used to provide students with interest-free loans.  These loans were securitized against a scholar’s possession – books, fine cutlery, etc – which would be forfeit if the student did not repay the loan within a year.

(If you’re wondering “how is a book surety for tuition”, the answer, more or less, is that pre-Gutenberg books were incredibly expensive, and not that much less in value than a semester’s worth of lectures).

National Security and Higher Education.  After World War II, area studies (that is, interdisciplinary studies of various world regions) took off in the United States, essentially because both institutions and governments decided that if the country was going to run the free world, it might help to know something about the various bits of it.  The CIA had ties to area studies, but so too did the major old-school foundations like Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie.

But this was by no means the first time that authorities had tried to use universities’ expertise in the humanities to strategic purposes.  In the early 14th century, the Catholic church was still reeling from the loss of the Holy Land to the Arabs, and there was a desire to turn things around in part by trying to convert the infidel.  At the Council of Vienne (that’s Vienne, France, just south of Lyon, not Vienna) in 1311, the church decided to set up endowed chairs in Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic both in Rome to serve the papacy directly but also at the Ivy League of the High Middle Ages (Paris, Oxford, Bologna and Salamanca).  Not quite knowledge in the service of the state – but given the link between religious control and territorial control, it’s close enough.

Disposing of Extra Cash.  Ok, this one’s a bit different.  Back in the day, administrative positions like Proctor – an overseer of general university and in some cases town life as well – were voted on by the Masters (i.e. tenured staff), in much the way that department chairs are today.  Since these positions entailed an ability to impose charges on students and in some cases townsfolk as well, this was a post that was in some demand.  It wasn’t quite a sinecure, but it was better than just being a lowly Master (the economic and social standing of Masters being a lot lower back then than that of Professor is today).

As with many such official positions in Europe prior the latter half of the nineteenth century when these crazy things called “examinations” started being used to award positions, the proctor post was something one purchased rather than won on merit.  On becoming a proctor, the successful candidate would be required to pay a substantial sum of money to the Master’s for the privilege.  According to custom, the Master’s would immediately repair to a tavern in order to – and I am not making this term up, you can read about it in Rashdall’s Medieval Universities – “Drink the Surplus”.

If anyone wants to get profs more comfortable with the notion of larger numbers of administrative staff on campus, I would suggest perhaps finding a way to revive this particular tradition.

Have a good weekend.

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