Trashing, plagiarism and neckties: The life of a Proctor

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“In comparison with invasions by Daleks, the things we have to deal with are not that major.” This is the startling, but indisputable, admission from Oxford’s Senior Proctor, keen to exterminate the myths associated with his post.

They don’t want to frighten you, they don’t want you to waste your champagne and the neck-bands that signify their role are actually very tricky to do up in the morning, Proctors Nick Bamforth and Colin Thompson reveal this week, in an exclusive interview with The Oxford Student.

Bamforth and Thompson cheerily pose for our photographer in Wellington Square, before leading us back to their Office which is disappointingly not, as we found, protected by the mythical bomb-proof door.

This is not the only myth the two are glad to dispel: no ceremonial sword will guarantee you that legendary pint of ale during Finals, as far as they know. The same myths have been floating around since his days as an undergraduate 40 years ago, says Thompson.

For most students, the Proctors’ Office will remain a mystery during their time at Oxford, but for the few who make it to the small room with stark white concrete walls and little natural light in Wellington Square, the University’s offices, it can be a very daunting experience.

Indeed, the walls of the Proctors’ waiting room are cheerfully decorated with Proctorial summons through the ages, enough to intimidate even the most hardened student rule-breaker.

The idea of a formal summons and obligatory gown-wearing fills the average student with a creeping sense of dread: these are the men who can remove you from the University.

Bamforth and Thompson claim that the formality is not intended to give students a fright. “It is a formality and it marks the fact, as matriculation does and as the conferring of degrees does, that there are matters which are serious, where it’s not just chit-chat,” says Thompson.

Martin Williams, who was Senior Proctor last year, disagrees. He thinks that for some students the apprehension preceding the interview itself can be enough to teach them a lesson.

“While I would shy away from the word ‘intimidate’, I wouldn’t deny that we do sometimes want to give students a bit of a fright. This is more often in the relatively minor cases where little or no disciplinary action ensues – essentially the interview is the punishment.

“The miscreant is left in no doubt as to how we feel about their behaviour and, hopefully, the rather scary formal interview makes a lasting impression and helps to modify future behaviour,” he said.

Despite the legendary place the Proctors hold in the University, most students will never actually meet them – and even when they do, if the breach of the rules is serious it will go to a formal disciplinary board, rather than being dealt with by the Proctors.

Thompson says: “All they see is us trying to stop them throwing projectiles in Merton Street…The great majority of students will never have – and should never have – any dealings with the Proctors except, though they may not realise it, when they take their degrees they will at some point have to bow to the Proctors. But equally we will take our caps off to them as a sign of respect.” “Some of them. If we like them,” Bamforth adds.

Undeterred by the seriousness of much of their work, Bamforth reveals that the Proctors still find ways to amuse themselves in the post.

“Colin and I are developing a game at the moment. We’re thinking of new toys to recommend to be put into the Oxford shop,” he says. But not, Thompson confirms, anything inappropriate – “Not sex toys!” he laughingly adds, before placing his head in his hands.

The special uniform – bow-tie and crisp white neck-bands – is not, they explain, widely recognised within the University, but can be a useful tool when they need to stand out.

“The biggest part of the Proctors’ job during the year is going to every University committee and making sure those committees are behaving properly…it’s a good thing to have people who are visibly dressed in a certain way because it does convey that those people are there to make sure the committee behaves properly,” says Bamforth.

There is no claiming on expenses for the Proctors though – even their uniform doesn’t come with the job. Thompson says of the Proctors’ neck bands: “We have to buy them. You have to fork out yourself.”

The Proctors’ role involves enforcing the University’s statutes which, Thompson says, he rarely disagrees with. The oration that the Proctors give at the end of the year – they hand over between Hilary and Trinity term – is an opportunity to express any divergences in opinion between the Proctors and the rules they have been enforcing.

Bamforth explains: “At the end of each Proctorial year, the Proctors always publish an annual statement of what they have found over the previous year and it’s not unusual for Proctors when they leave office to be quite clear about things they disagree with.”

While he did not come up against rules he did not want to enforce during his time in Office, the procedures he was obliged to follow were often frustrating for Williams.

“Sometimes students can get drawn into very long, legalistic and stressful disciplinary proceedings as a result of relatively minor offences, and that the process itself can come to seem like a disproportionate punishment.

“Sometimes I was frustrated that I could not find a way round this, and towards the end of my year I was pushing quite hard for some streamlining of procedures for dealing with more minor offences,” he said.

The Proctors’ highest profile task, at least for the student community, is the policing of exams, and the imposition of fines upon failure to obey the rules. The total number of charges from last year was 46, up from nine the year before. 12 of the new cases related to plagiarism.

Thompson has looked at the figures, and argues that fluctuations represent such a small proportion of the total student numbers to be negligible. He does believe, however, that there has been a trend in the levels of detected cheating in exams.

“I think one of the things that has certainly happened is that plagiarism has become more of a problem – people are more sensitive to it and the opportunities are greater,” he says. Bamforth also points out that it is now also much easier to detect evidence of plagiarism.

Around exam time the Proctors are kept busy trying to prevent students covering each other with all manner of intriguing substances on Merton Street.

Thompson is keen to point out, though, that trashing is a recent phenomenon: “It’s an invention of the last ten years. That’s an Oxford myth.”

Their concern is the cost of the clean-up, Bamforth explains. “The thing to remember is the University usually has to pay between very high four figures and somewhere into five figures in cleaning costs each year – imagine how many scholarships could actually be supported by that. There’s a degree of real selfishness involved,” he said.

Thompson understands that students want to let their hair down after Finals, but laments the wasting of champagne, and encourages Finalists to find other ways to celebrate: “I’m really sorry to see it, because we want people to be happy and to celebrate – and I certainly got extremely merry.”

In general the Proctors feel warmly towards the students they are tasked with keeping within the rules.

Thompson admits that they expect some level of misbehaviour on the part of the student body: “You will expect in a large community where there are lots of young people together that there will be boisterous levels of behaviour sometimes – I’d be rather disappointed if there weren’t.”

While the Proctors are proud of their independent status, and their ability to autonomously enforce the University statutes, the pair are diplomatic in their answer to the question of which office holds the most power: theirs or the Vice-Chancellor’s.

Thompson points out that the roles are actually very different: “We have a range of responsibilities – all officers of the University have ranges of responsibilities; the Vice-Chancellor probably a wider range than anyone else.”

Waggishly, he does, however, point out that the Proctors have been around somewhat longer: “In historical terms, Proctors existed long before Vice-Chancellors – let’s put it like that. We’re much older – we’re ancient. We go back to the middle of the 13th Century.” “Not personally,” Bamforth clarifies.

Thompson’s favourite committee is, he explains, no longer sitting: “My favourite University committee, which I attended on Friday, is the committee for the archives, which has just been abolished… The reason it’s my favourite committee is the only meeting of it I’ve been to is it’s last meeting – it lasted half an hour and was followed by a jolly good dinner.”