Master and Student Run Universities

by LeAnn J. Williams

Two systems were used to run universities in the medieval ages. The master-run university system was adopted by the Northern Schools of Europe (Oxford, Paris, and Cambridge). The student-run university system was adopted in Southern Europe, specifically Bologna. The northern part of Europe was civilized and organized. The government knew that people wanted to learn, and the government could do something about it. They created colleges, where the professors were paid by the government, and the students were under the professors. The masters of these schools set the rules, and the students were meant to follow them, no matter what they were. In the south, things were different. Society was chaotic, and the government was not established universally. Each region was a city-state, each with its own government. The students wanted to learn, but had no way to attend college, because the government was too chaotic to set one up. The students took matters into their own hands, and set up a university system. They paid professionals to teach them. The masters were under the students; this is the opposite of what was happening in the north. The students set the rules, and could fire a master if they broke those rules (Jackson). The master run system and the student run university system both worked, however the master run university has survived through time because of its stability, while the student run system has not.

In the north, the medieval universities were master-run. The University of Paris was founded, organized and funded by the government. The students were under control of the strict regulation of the faculty (Long). The Masters worked within a corporation, and they created the rules; these universities were organized by the professors and teachers. This model is what most universities today use (Jenkins). The North was organized, the government was powerful, and was willing to pay professors to teach their citizens. The governments wanted their people to learn and be educated past the typical grammar school level. With this high education system, citizens would become an active member in society, which increased economy, and lead to the Enlightenment (Jackson). The University of Paris is an example of the master-run university system.

The University of Paris was one of the first universities in Europe, and is based upon a master-run system (Long). The university grew out of the cathedral schools of Notre-Dame, and was founded in 1170 (Universities). This university was run from the top down, and was funded by the government. The students were under strict regulation of the faculty, they controlled everything (Long). The university was divided into four faculties, and each one was headed by a dean, the dean later became the university Rector (Universities). The master run systems were organized and administered by the professors and teachers who worked in a corporation (Jenkins). The systems were run by a Chancellor, who had the power to issue licenses to teach. Once scholars got their licenses, they became a part of the faculty. The professors would offer lectures or courses, and the students would take notes. Once the student felt ready, they could appear before the Chancellor for an examination and attain their diploma if they passed the exam (Nelson). The students would prove their time of study by two examinations, and would become licensed (Halsall). The masters ran the lectures and the examinations, therefore making Paris a master-run university. Though this university system worked, there was another system showing up in the southern part of Europe.

In southern Europe, the universities being formed were student run. The structure was entirely controlled by the student body. They elected representatives, paid the professor’s salaries, and made/enforced rules and regulations for their teachers. These rules would include things like the number of teaching hours, and the content delivered by the instructor. The students who were running the university were not young, they were not eighteen or nineteen like seen in the university systems today, they were much older, and generally had experience in liberal arts.

These universities were run by “post-graduates,” one could say. This institution was not a typical university, or built like one. The power in the university was not enforced by politics or games, it was by the wealth of the students and how well the students thought the professors were. The professors relied on the students for their salaries. If the students did not like the professor, they would withdraw their fees (Jenkins). The professors were scholars in their subjects, and as long as they followed the rules of the students, they could stay (Jackson). The University of Bologna was a student-run university.

The University of Bologna, as the first western university, has contributed to the advancement of education and law (University). The students of Bologna came from all over Europe to study with the prominent scholars. The professors were freelance, and offered courses on their own, and charging whatever the students were willing to pay. Professors had to compete for students. Students would only pay the professors if they thought the professors’ class was worth taking (Long). The students organized into unions called universitas, and they had to bargain with the professors. The professors taught scholastically at first, using scholars like Aristotle and Avicenna. The teachers were hired by the students to give instruction and the lectures were either “ordinary” or “extraordinary.” The ordinary lectures were reserved for the doctors, and the extraordinary ones were given by a student as a part of his preparation for the baccalaureate. The students had power over the professors, even the power to fire a professor if the professors lectures were not to the students liking (Long).

A committee, called the Denounces of Professors, would keep an eye out for misbehaving professors, and had the power to fire masters who did not follow the rules. The professors could be fined if they did not begin or end a lecture on time, or if they failed to present all course material by the end of the course. The professors formed a CBA (collective bargaining association) called the College of Teachers, this “college” gave the professors power. They gained the right to determine examination fees and requirements to earn a degree. A balance of rights was soon determined, where the professors would determine the obligations of the students, and the students determined the obligations of the masters. This was a power-sharing scheme, which seemed to work, though the students still held most of the power because they paid the salaries (Long). The student run system did not last long.

In 1220, the University of Bologna changed. The government began to pay for the salaries of the professors, and the professors guaranteed that they would stay at Bologna, which created continuity and stability in the university (Net). This converted the University of Bologna into a publicly funded university. The professors were now dependent on the city government rather than the students (Long). The students, however, got to make rules in which the masters had to follow. The masters had to swear loyalty to the student rectors and agree to abide by all the rules the student government made. If the professor, or masters, failed to comply with one or more of the rules, they would be fined. The rules included things such as the professor starting class late, or going over allotted class time; falling short of creating syllabus in the allotted time of the course or, leaving the town of Bologna for a day without permission. The rules were established by the city and the student body (de Foix). This was the ultimate power-sharing system. Bologna was later a research university (Pace). The communes tried to favor the students over the teachers at Bologna. The masters were to make an oath that they would not teach outside of the University of Bologna’s walls. Their tenure was secure, only if they limited themselves to the teaching of students at Bologna. The university was run by students and professors until the Napoleonic Era, where the Rector was reintroduced. Thus, the university became more organized. The Rector is elected every four years, and is the head of the university (Monaco).

Student-run universities do not work because the professors can be fired on a dime. If the students do not like the class, or the professor, or the grade they receive, they can pull their tuition. By pulling their tuition, the professor may be forced to leave, because his salary is lowered. Professors would be incoming and outgoing, which is hard on students in a university setting. Student cannot get to know a professor, or work with them long enough to establish a relationship, or even a research team. Master-run schools work because the Masters have to stay. They teach the students all they know, and they do not have to be afraid of being fired suddenly. The only problem with this system is that the students may not like what the professors have to say, and instead of the masters being fired, the students leave. This happened at Oxford in the medieval ages. The students at Oxford were fed up with their professors, so they moved. The students formed another university at Cambridge, and the Oxford professors lost. The best system is the three way one that Bologna now follows. The government, student body, and professors all work together in a balanced system. Each group has to compromise what they want, and what they get. It ends up working out for everyone, and is more functional than the master-run or student-run systems (Jackson).

The medieval period showed an increase in the want and need to learn. Paris was one of the most prestigious schools north of the Alps (de Foix), and the University of Bologna was the first university in the modern world (University). The University of Paris was a master-run school of the North, and Bologna was a student-run university of the South. Each program had great scholars and students, but one university was more stable over the other. The stability of this system led it to be more successful than the student-run universities of its time. The University of Paris’ master run model “is this model of the university which survives to this day” (Jenkins).




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This paper was first presented in Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.