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Supplement (1) to Oxford University Gazette No. 4728. Wednesday, 23 March 2005.
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Oxford University Gazette, 23 March 2005

Oration by the Senior Proctor

The following Oration was delivered in Congregation on Wednesday, 16 March, by J.F. WHEATER, MA, D.PHIL., Fellow of University College, on demitting office as Senior Proctor.

SENIOR PROCTOR: Insignissime Vice-Cancellarie, licetne Anglice loqui?


SENIOR PROCTOR: The first thing several people asked me when I was elected a Proctor two years ago was whether I wasn't rather worried about the prospect of having to give this speech. Some knew differently—there is nothing I like better than having a large venue full of a captive audience who have to listen to me for the next fifty minutes.

It is well known that an audience is most alert and attentive at the beginning, so let us start with the most important business. The Proctors' learning curve is very steep. No one should be in any doubt that the job could not be done without the high-calibre office staff, most ably led by Dr Brian Gasser, Clerk to the Proctors. We have also relied extensively on the knowledge and experience of the Deputy Director of Legal Services, Mrs Frances Barnwell, and of the head of the EPSC Secretariat, Mr Richard Hughes. I would like to record our particular thanks to these individuals and to tell Dr Gasser how much I have appreciated his patience with my habit of disappearing at the slightest opportunity back to Theoretical Physics, mercifully just a couple of minutes away in Keble Road and much quieter and warmer than the Proctors' Office!

Trinity Term is monopolised by examinations. The Junior Proctor is dealing with a stream of requests for special treatment of one kind or another, and the Senior Proctor is on the streets coralling celebrating students. As the medical certificates die away, the celebrators depart, and the results are published, the complaints build up. It would be quite impossible to handle all this without the expertise, efficiency and unflappability of the staff in the Proctors' Office, especially Mrs Linda Mason, Deputy Clerk to the Proctors, and in the Examination Schools. However I have to report that in our view the system is close to breaking point. The number of students with special needs rises steadily, threatening to overwhelm the evaluation panels and the capacity of facilities such as the computer suite in the Schools. Needless to say the weight of associated paperwork rises remorselessly. Complaints about examinations have to be made through colleges, and as their number increases it becomes ever more vital that Senior Tutors weed out the trivial and vexatious and do not automatically forward everything to the Proctors. This year we have departed from the convention that the Junior Proctor deals with complaints about taught courses and the Senior with those about research degrees. Encouragingly, complaints about research degrees remain at a very low level, and to even out the load many taught course complaints were handled by the Senior Proctor.

There is not much spare capacity left, especially in the summer, and it is time to take stock of what is done, why it is done, and by whom it is done. On this occasion I would only remind Congregation that the experts on the conduct of University examinations are academics, from whom the Proctors are drawn. They may sometimes be irritating but it should not be imagined that the irritation would be diminished by their replacement with full-time administrators. The application of uniform standards for the conduct of examinations across the University is a necessary part of ensuring fairness to all students and maintaining the University's reputation. This does not mean that there should not be innovation—but there must be rigour.

After the troubles of 2003, which was the first year after the University Police lost their warrant cards and became Proctors' Officers, a determined effort was made to get post-examination celebrations back under control. We were fortunate to benefit from the measures initiated by our predecessors, and the arrival of the new Marshal. We opted for saturation coverage. The Code of Conduct, explaining in plain English bullet-point form what is and is not acceptable behaviour under the Regulations was e-mailed in plain text to all students. Advertisements were placed in the student newspapers. Posters were distributed to colleges. Council approved the spot-fine regime for minor offences outside examination venues in May 2004. Many people were involved in policing the Examination Schools and Ewert House: the pro-Proctors, Proctors' Officers, Assistant Proctors' Officers and members of the security staff. If you haven't done something similar before, as I had not, you do not know what it is like. There is a big crowd in celebratory mood, and a few people to control it. Your authority to do so may be challenged and you must not lose your temper. This has to be done twice a day, every day bar Sunday, for five weeks. It is stressful and tiring, and we are very grateful to everyone who played their part. Despite the best efforts of the media to stir things up I think we did pretty well, and some semblance of order was restored. We wish our successors good fortune in bringing about much-needed further improvement; we firmly believe that the wild behaviour of the last few years can, by continuing careful management, be squeezed out of the collective student memory.

This year, with examinations on the wane in July, the Oxford Proctors were the guests of their Cambridge counterparts. Inclement weather threatened at lunch-time, but cleared up, so the afternoon bowls contest went ahead in steamy conditions, which would have made a good swing bowler an awkward proposition. The Marshal and the Senior Proctor had never played before, but the combination of their dislike of losing, with the skill and coaching of Mrs Mason, led the three of us to triumph against seasoned opposition. Sadly the others didn't do so well, and we lost two matches to one. Afterwards we were shown a very interesting exhibition of Proctorial archives in the Cambridge University Library, the first time the Senior Proctor had visited that august institution. To start with he didn't understand what he was looking at as we walked through the library; then light dawned—what an amazingly clever system to have readers fetch their own books from the stacks (although apparently the technical name for these in Cambridge is 'open shelves', or am I getting confused?).

A reading of the last three Senior Proctors' Orations will remind you that the disciplinary environment has changed drastically with the introduction of the 2002 Statutes. The arbitrary and despotic powers of the Proctors were swept away and replaced by a thoroughly modern system with records kept, separation of prosecutor and adjudicators, and rights—Oh! so many rights—of appeal. Now misdemeanours are treated with manifest justice and in a manner that respects all the rights of the accused; we can be proud. Well, of course, it doesn't work. A system of which the inhabitants of most nation-states on this planet can only dream is inappropriate for the purpose of student discipline in an impoverished University. It is so slow that the time elapsed in dealing with students involved in essentially minor offences is itself a major source of injustice—it seems to have been forgotten that students are mostly here for three years and often only one. It has also created something in excess of thirty man-days of work per year in the Proctors' Office alone. In a welcome development, some of the changes of 2002 relating to the treatment of plagiarism have been undone this year; substantial power to deal with cases where it is admitted and deemed not to originate in dishonest intent has reverted to the Proctors. Now the Director of the new Office of the Independent Adjudicator has let it be known that she thinks our shiny new court system over-complicated, and that undue delay in internal university procedures will be a matter of great concern to her office. Congregation will not be surprised to hear that the Proctors agree with this; may be pleasantly taken aback to hear that, strangely and suddenly, so does everybody else; may be shocked at the news that proposals for a more streamlined system are being worked on; but will understand after all when I recall that the Director of the OIA was herself once Senior Proctor.

The Proctors act as ombudsman for general complaints by and about students. Many are dealt with by deans within colleges, but even so, given the size of this institution, those reaching the Proctors are remarkably few in number. However, sometimes they are serious, and quite a high proportion have been upheld this year; we believe that this demonstrates that the Proctors really do approach complaints with an independent and open mind. It is one of life's paradoxes that by the time problems get to the Proctors it is often too late to undo all the damage; but if people complained earlier, the Proctors would have to spend a lot of time with many cases that in fact will sort themselves out, and do a worse job on the most serious ones in consequence. It is rarely the case that active wrongdoing is the cause of the trouble; far more often it is neglect, wishful thinking that some thing or some person will just go away, unwillingness to grasp the nettle. The Proctors never meet those cases where these judgements are correctly made. I am particularly grateful to Ms Cecilia Hogg, Deputy Clerk to the Proctors, for her patience and attention to detail in a number of the more difficult cases.

Having avoided appearing in plays since a searing pastoral experience in the Nativity at the age of five, the Senior Proctor looked forward to the degree ceremonies with some trepidation. The worry was misplaced; in fact the ceremonies are great fun for everyone and the elegant and sophisticated choreography is soon discovered to be entirely an illusion. It was our great privilege to learn from Sir Colin Lucas who, given his length of service as Vice-Chancellor and the frequency of degree days now, must by some margin hold the all-comers' record for number of Oxford degrees conferred. This year we had the added spice of the unanticipated closure of the Sheldonian at the end of August. With the next degree ceremonies barely a month away the speed with which alternative arrangements were made in the Examination Schools was a tribute to all involved. The Proctors sagely decided to remain in the Schools for the November degree day despite assurances relayed to them by Dr Gasser that the Sheldonian was expected to be empty of scaffolding by then.

It was during the period of closure that undoubtedly the most unusual event of the year took place when we were privileged to admit you, Sir, as the first Vice-Chancellor to be appointed from outside Oxford. My predecessor remarked in his speech that this year the Proctors would therefore be in the unprecedented position of teaching the Vice-Chancellor about ceremonial procedures. I can report to Congregation that our new Vice-Chancellor is a fast learner.

The people who matter attend just one unique degree ceremony. When our esteemed colleague the Registrar stands up, walks around, and then without a word sits down again or when you, Sir, accelerate straight into the Latin without waiting for the applause for your speech, the graduands and their guests do not know that things are not going quite right. Sadly the same cannot be said of the occasion when the Senior Proctor muddled his papers and failed to read out all the names in one list of supplicats; for that I am very sorry.

The Proctors and the Assessor observe the University at work, and this year there has been plenty to see. I suspect that the Assessor sees more than the Proctors; his role is less unremittingly demanding, although he does chair the car-parking working group.

Shortly after we took office OSIRIS, the new accounting system, went live; that this has proved a troublesome awakening is commonplace by now. It is easy to be wise after the event but this time we must learn and act upon the lessons. The difficulties have pushed many loyal and dedicated staff in the departments, to which we return today, almost to distraction. Their warnings went unheeded for too long. Great damage was done by the failure to appreciate and rectify a major threat to the well-being of the whole institution until it was almost too late. It is imperative that we are in future organised so that such an episode can never be repeated.

The year has seen many changes that will directly affect student finances, and the Assessor has been heavily involved in the discussions. In January, Congregation approved a composition fee of £3,000 for Home and EU undergraduates from 2006–7 together with a new bursary scheme for Home students. The Oxford Opportunity Bursaries will provide up to £10,000 over three years or £13,000 over four years to students from the lowest household income categories. Together with statutory Government grants, the bursaries will enable students to cover their entire basic living costs at Oxford. The fee and bursary proposals were developed by a joint working party of the University and the colleges, their implementation will be co-ordinated by a student financial aid office, and colleges will continue to provide other financial support to their students, including scholarships and hardship grants.

Administration of university funds for student hardship and childcare was streamlined. The new Student Hardship and Childcare Funds Committee oversees provision, and its Applications Subcommittee considers all the needs of an applicant together. The Government Hardship Fund was succeeded by the Access to Learning Fund, whose more stringent criteria reflected developments in Government thinking on student funding. The practice of disbursing funds via colleges continued, and colleges commented on the increased administration (where have we heard that before?), loss of discretion, but greater uniformity of treatment associated with the new regime.

Financial support for graduate students remains an important matter, and no less so in light of proposals in the Academic Strategy green paper. Scholarship, bursary, and hardship provision is under review. The Vice-Chancellors' Fund, established through donations by members of the Chancellor's Court of Benefactors in honour of Vice- Chancellors Neill, Southwood, and North, provides assistance to academically outstanding doctoral students nearing completion of their theses. In its fourth year the Fund received 175 applications, and reports from holders of previous awards and their supervisors testified to the outstanding quality of the students and work supported. There is a particular need for additional funds to assist doctoral students complete their work. One hundred and twenty- seven new units of university accommodation for graduates opened at Castle Mill in October. Provision of accommodation for graduates, and for undergraduates, is under active discussion and will remain of central importance for the collegiate University.

A number of new facilities have opened and the Proctors and Assessor have done their share of drinking and eating for the University. Among the highlights have been the Henry Wellcome Building of Gene Function with its unparalleled view of the cricket pitch in the Parks, the beautiful Information Engineering Building, the University Club on Mansfield Road which provides immeasurably improved social and recreational facilities for over 7,500 members, the Rosenblatt swimming pool and the Manor Road Building for the Social Sciences. We have been entertained at All Souls after Encaenia and on the admission of the Vice-Chancellor, Balliol to mark Sir Colin Lucas's retirement, Christ Church, Magdalen with the Chancellor's Court of Benefactors, Oriel at the Tenants Dinner, Queen's, St Hilda's, St John's, by the Oxford University Air Squadron and by the Officer Training Corps.

The Proctors and Assessor are Delegates of the Oxford University Press and this was the year of the new Dictionary of National Biography. We should trumpet the facts that most of the cost of producing this great work of scholarship was borne by the Press and that it was completed on the schedule laid out more than a decade ago by its original editor. The launching of the DNB was hard work for conscientious Delegates, indeed the London launching at the National Portrait Gallery nearly did for the Vice-Chancellor and Senior Proctor who had to retire to a local restaurant to recover. In the hands of the Delegates lies ultimate responsibility for the continued good reputation of the Press. However Delegates' meetings are far from dull; I have found the everyday explanations of advanced and abstruse concepts by the Philosophy Delegate particularly enchanting and can now fool myself that I too understand philosophy. More seriously the revenue generated by the Press is at present vital for the continued functioning of the University. Without it we would be in desperate trouble; even with it we live in very difficult times.

Oxford University is in the same academic league as some North American institutions which have far greater resources; this is a remarkable achievement by academics overburdened with teaching and administration. All of us have a critical level of commitment below which teaching is productive, and often a pleasure, but above which it has a serious impact on our research; that critical level varies widely among individuals and so, even leaving aside questions about the funding of teaching, managing the load will always be complicated. However, administration is another matter; academics should not be doing work that can be done by administrative staff who in turn should not be doing anything that is not strictly necessary for the well-being and smooth functioning of the University. Those of us who have been here a long time have seen the burden of paperwork inexorably rising; each increment has of itself been small and often appeared inevitable because of the requirements of external agencies. Now we are in danger of disappearing under a mountain of paper and over-compliance; on the other hand ignorance about the most basic aspects of the University's condition has been widespread, often leading to lack of trust and corrosive speculation about people's intentions. This problem is not in any sense the result of deliberate decisions; we have evolved incrementally into a state that is no longer capable of dealing efficiently and effectively with the demands of the environment we find ourselves in. I have seen in some papers this year an almost resigned acceptance of the increased burden of administration on academics. I do not agree, because I observe large amounts of ultimately pointless administration going on. If we stopped this we would liberate resources which could and should be used to reduce the administrative load on academics.

By definition the Proctors and the Assessor work closely with colleagues who in the ordinary course of events we may never have met, and so we learn what we may never otherwise have learned. The Assessor, as befits someone who started as a mathematical logician, is a man of accuracy and economy—especially with words. This year many a prolix and rambling question-cum-complaint has been greeted with 'can you give me an example?'; even more devastating is the Assessor's ultimate weapon 'so, can you suggest a solution?'. The Senior Proctor will take these simple lessons to heart—just as soon as this speech is finished.

This atheistically inclined theoretical physicist never imagined he would one day share an office with a Minister of the Church of England. The Junior Proctor's facility with the English language, wisdom in the ways of the world and, let us be honest, experience of internecine strife, have provided the skills-set to smooth our progress through the year. It didn't take us long to discover that we agree on a surprisingly wide range of issues; it's just that we have a slightly different way of putting it. The Senior Proctor might regard some event as simply inveterate and arrogant rule-breaking; it will have to be done again properly. The Junior Proctor will patiently explain that it is an example of the antinomian heresy, which, for those of you with a physicist's education, is that if you are doing God's work (for which read that of any sacred principle) then by definition what you are doing is right; but it will still have to be done again properly. And one particularly foolish action by. . . , well I seem to have forgotten by whom, left the Senior Proctor speechless, but the Junior Proctor without hesitation managed 'it isn't forbidden in the Regulations because no one would be so stupid'.

So, it has been a busy year. Inevitably we have learnt many things; about the institution, about others and about ourselves. Those of you who share the Senior Proctor's love of Jane Austen's peerless Pride and Prejudice will recall the moment when Lady Catherine de Bourgh is extolling the musical talent of her own anaemic daughter, Anne, compared to that of the heroine Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Says Lady Catherine, 'Miss Bennett would not play at all amiss if she practised more, and could have the advantage of a London master. She has a very good notion of fingering, though her taste is not equal to Anne's. Anne would have been a delightful performer, had her health allowed her to learn.'

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Proctorial year 2004–5

Summary of disciplinary cases

(Totals for previous year given in brackets)

Breach of Statute XI Code of Discipline

The Disciplinary Court dealt with 1 case of engaging in violent behaviour and causing injury to a student member of the University. The offender was rusticated for two weeks.

Disruption/occupation of University property: The Proctors' Court dealt with 3 (23) cases where charges had been brought by the previous Proctors. The Proctors imposed written warnings as to future conduct ; one fine of £70, and one fine of £50; the third case remains on the file as the offender suspended status on medical grounds prior to the hearing. In addition, the Court of Summary Jurisdiction dealt with 2 cases, one referred by the previous Proctors and the other at the request of the student concerned. The court imposed two fines of £90. One fine of £90 remains outstanding; the Proctors arranged for the offender to be shown as a debtor to the University (therefore not permitted to take his/her degree) until the debt has been settled. The Court of Summary Jurisdiction rejected an appeal against a fine imposed by the Proctors' Court.

The Proctors' Court dealt with 5 cases of engaging in activities likely to cause injury or to impair safety. The Proctors imposed written warnings as to future conduct; one fine of £70, one fine of £60, two fines of £50 and one fine of £35.

The Proctors' Court dealt with 2 cases where students displayed an offensive poster thereby impairing the safety of members and employees of the University. The Proctors imposed written warnings as to future conduct and fines of £70 on each offender.

Obstruction 1 (0). The case was referred to the Court of Summary Jurisdiction; a fine of £80 was imposed (£50 for obstruction and £30 for behaviour after examinations).

Misappropriation of University property 2 (0). The Proctors' Court dealt with 2 cases of misappropriation of University property/engaging in activities likely to cause injury. The Proctors imposed fines of £70 and £50 and written warnings as to future conduct. The Proctors are not empowered to make an order for compensation, but further advised the offenders to reimburse the colleges for consequential costs which had been incurred by them.

Misuse of property (Information Technology Facilities) 5 (3). The Proctors' Court imposed fines of £60, £50 and two fines of £40. No fine was imposed in the fifth case. In addition, each offender received a written warning as to their future conduct. In addition, the Court of Summary Jurisdiction dealt with 2 cases; penalties of rustication were imposed. The Disciplinary Court subsequently upheld the students' appeals against penalty, which was commuted to fines of £150 and £120 respectively.

Offensive behaviour/language, together with charges of obstruction 1 (1). The case was referred to the Court of Summary Jurisdiction, and a fine of £135 imposed.

Breach of Rules Committee Regulations

Behaviour after examinations 27 (11). The Proctors' Court imposed eleven fines of £30 (including one for obstruction); three fines of £35, three fines of £40, five fines of £45, one fine of £50, two fines of £60, one fine of £65, one fine of £70; one offender was required to write a letter of apology to a Proctors' Officer; one offender was fined an additional £10 for running away. In addition, the Court of Summary Jurisdiction dealt with 2 cases; the court imposed fines of £75 and £40 and made orders for damages in the sums of £25 and £10.50 respectively. All offenders dealt with by the Proctors were given written warnings as to their future conduct. A further case was dismissed by the Court of Summary Jurisdiction.

Spot Fines 14 (0). Spot Fines were introduced in May 2004 and may be imposed where a breach of Part 4 of the Rules Committee Regulations has occurred (i.e. students' behaviour outside examination venues). Four fines of £30 were imposed, six fines of £40, one fine of £45 and three fines of £50. Two Spot Fines were also withdrawn due to insufficient evidence. One offender appealed to the Court of Summary Jurisdiction against the imposition of a £45 Spot Fine but subsequently withdrew the appeal. One Spot Fine of £30 remains outstanding and the Proctors arranged for the offender to be shown as a debtor to the University (therefore not permitted to take his/her degree) until the debt has been settled. The Court of Summary Jurisdiction subsequently rejected an appeal against the fine imposed by the Proctors' Court.

Breach of Proctors' Disciplinary Regulations for Examinations

Unauthorised removal of materials from an examination room 0 (1).

Unauthorised materials in an examination room 1 (2). The Proctors imposed a fine of £30 and issued a written warning.

Candidates failing to present themselves for examinations in full academic dress 1 (0). The candidate was given a written warning as to future conduct.

Plagiarism 6 (3). Three cases were dealt with by the Court of Summary Jurisdiction; in each, the examiners were instructed to disregard the plagiarised work and the candidates were permitted to resubmit (with a marks penalty in one case). The Disciplinary Court dealt with 2 plagiarism cases; in one case the examiners were instructed to disregard the plagiarised work; the candidate was failed in a previously completed M.St. examination but permitted to retake the examination, and if the examiners are satisfied, permitted to re-enter the degree for M.Phil.; in the second case, a candidate had previously been convicted of plagiarism by the Court of Summary Jurisdiction. He/she was permitted to submit new work and some of this was subsequently found to contain plagiarised material. A charge of attempting to cheat or act dishonestly was dismissed, but the candidate was nevertheless failed in the BCL examination. Following a Proctorial investigation, and taking into consideration certain mitigating factors, the Examiners were instructed to disregard a candidate's original M.Phil submission. He/she was given permission to submit replacement work to be determined by the Examiners. As a result of this case, the department concerned was advised to introduce certain procedures.

Collusion 1 (0). The case involved a student who devised a false explanation to the Proctors. The Proctors' Court imposed a fine of £70 and a written warning.

Total new cases: 78 (59).

Other Matters

The Proctors successfully applied to the Court of Summary Jurisdiction to extend a Suspension Order in respect of a student member of the University. (Case in progress).

The Proctors referred to the Registrar two cases where allegations of misconduct were made against members of Congregation.

The Proctors dealt with two cases where action was required from the University to complement penalties of suspension/rustication imposed by colleges.

In one case which was referred to the Court of Summary Jurisdiction at the end of the previous Proctorial year, the offender was fined £500 and rusticated until such time as the debt was settled. The offender appealed (out of time) to the Disciplinary Court against the penalty; the Disciplinary Court upheld the decision of the Court of Summary Jurisdiction. The fine was subsequently paid in full.

The Proctors dealt with 30 (32) cases of students reported by libraries for non-payment of fines and/or non-return of books; In some cases debts owed amounted to several hundred pounds. In all cases the Proctors contacted the students concerned and their colleges, and arranged for the defaulters to be shown as debtors to the University (therefore not permitted to take their degrees) pending resolution of their cases. In 2004 32 (28) students paid the replacement cost of books and/or library fines, following the Proctors' intervention.

Summary of complaints received

The 145 complaints handled during the Proctorial Year 2004–5 (including 6 carried forward from the previous year may be categorised as follows (the numbers in brackets refer to 2003–4):

Examinations: 125 (114) including undergraduates 89 (80) and postgraduates 36 (34).

These included 38 (38) requests for verification of results that did not develop into substantive complaints.

Equal Opportunities: 0 (0).

But note that some examination complaints also involved Equal Opportunities issues.

Harassment: 7 (9).

Maladministration: 6 (5).

Quality of/access to teaching, research or support facilities: 0 (0).

Suspension/rustication from the University: 2 (0).

Student Union (OUSU): 1 (0).

Other: 4 (6).

Total: 145 (134).

Among the cases completed, the Proctors upheld in whole or in part a total of 34 complaints and arranged for redress to be provided where appropriate. One of the complaints dismissed by the Proctors was subsequently upheld by EPSC. A second complainant appealed successfully to the High Steward.

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Supplement (1) to Oxford University Gazette No. 4728. Wednesday, 23 March 2005.