History of Finance Division

The Chest of the Five Keys

The Chest itself is an iron box, the present one being made in the seventeenth century and officially named The Painted Chest. It has a lock in the lid and four hasps and staples, two on the front and one at each end.

The Painted Chest

The Painted Chest: The last of several




It is painted with the coats of arms of the University and of such Colleges as were in existence when it was made. The "Chest" has had several meanings, it may have meant the now defunct committee officially called "The Curators of the University Chest", it may mean that part of the Old Clarendon Building on Broad Street once used as an office by the permanent officials, it may mean those officials themselves.

The University and the Colleges

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The modern Chest is therefore the Finance Division of the University and is responsible for purchasing, internal audit, payroll, pensions and all other accounting services.The Finance Division also manages the University's investment and non-academic properties.


The beginnings of the University lie in the 13th Century when students fended for themselves in small groups based in inns and lodging houses. The Collegiate University evolved from these small groups.

The University is quite separate and distinct from the Colleges, each of which operates under its own royal charter. Each College is a self-governing body but has a number of connections with the University, both financial and academic.Thus students and staff are members of both college and university for different purposes, whilst money, relating to education, flows in both directions for certain specific purposes. One cannot become a member of the University unless one is first accepted as a member of a College so that the members of the academic community who form the committees which govern the University are all members of one or other of the thirty eight Colleges, as well as being members of the University.

In broad terms, the University provides the facilities that are too large to be run economically by each College. For instance, it would be impossible to have thirty eight nuclear physics laboratories in Oxford, one for each College, so one is provided by the University and each College sends its students reading nuclear physics to that laboratory.


Manslaughter and murder

The history of the finance of the University begins with manslaughter and murder. In the winter of 1208-09 an Oxford student killed a woman in a tavern brawl, and disappeared. The Mayor and townsmen of Oxford, intent on justice but failing to find the offender, arrested two or three innocent students who shared his lodging and, with the King's permission, hanged them outside the walls.

Thus began the first of the great conflicts between Town and Gown. The University, a training ground for clerics, was defended by the Church; the town's action was supported by King John, who was then engaged in a general and bitter struggle with the Pope, but the Church proved stronger than the King and, under threat of excommunication, the King eventually submitted to the Pope and, after a few years' defiance, the townsmen of Oxford also submitted.

In 1214 the Papal Legate in England issued an ordinance in which he imposed terms on the town, which included, as some recompense for hanging the students, annual payment of fifty-two shillings for the use of poor scholars and the payment for a feast for one hundred of them. This annual payment was the University's first endowment and it is an interesting example of the continuity of University history. Shortly after 1214 the Abbot of Eynsham undertook the payment on behalf of the town and the Abbey continued to pay annually up to the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century.

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The Crown then took over the obligation and this blood money, as it might be called, was until recently paid to the Chest by the Paymaster General. The sum received annually, £3 1s 6d, was handed over by the Chest to the Vice-Chancellor for the relief of needy students for which purpose the Vice-Chancellor applied it.


An 'academic pawnshop'

In 1240, Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln, directed that this revenue of the University should be paid into a chest to be kept in St. Frideswide's Priory and other gifts should be added thereto. This was the first University Chest. This was essentially a loan chest, a sort of academic pawnshop. Money was lent from it to finance needy students who deposited as security some pledge of value – a piece of plate, a garment or a book – which was to be sold at the end of the year if there were no repayment of the loan.

This chest at St. Frideswide's was followed by many others. During the Middle Ages there were at least twenty such chests kept in the Old Congregation House at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin on High Street, all of them being charitable foundations essentially for loans to needy students. The older statutes of the University show that many of these chests contained schedules of accounts, but although we have lists of the annually elected guardians of the chests, none of their accounts survive.


New chests for a new century

Early in the fifteenth century two new chests were made, both known as the Chest of the Five Keys. The first one, made in 1412, was used chiefly to hold University statutes and other documents of value. The second, made in 1427 was reserved for money and plate. The five keys of this chest were held by the Vice-Chancellor and four elected Masters of Arts, and there were also eight Auditors of the accounts of the chest. The Chest of the Five Keys is the direct ancestor of the Chest as we know it today, the central financial organisation of the University. This fifteenth century chest, normally on exhibition in the Ashmolean Museum, was in use until 1668 when it was superseded by a painted iron chest which was in use up to 1756.

The first bank account

The Chest then disappeared for over a century as it was no longer needed; the University having in 1756 opened a banking account with Messrs. Child & Co. of Temple Bar. The Chest was found in Corpus Christi College in 1875 and when opened on the 28th January of that year in the bailiff's room at Corpus Christi in the presence of the President and Bursar of Corpus Christi College and the Secretary of the Chest was found to contain:

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1. A record book dating from 12 September 1667;

2. A paper of memoranda relating to University documents formerly preserved in the Chest;

3. A canvas bag containing eight silver coins of the reign of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I (pictured left).


It was removed to the Old Clarendon Building, then the site of the University's administrative offices, and in the seventies to the University Offices at Wellington Square to the office of the Director and Secretary of the Chest. When the documentary contents of the chest were catalogued, and removed to the archives in 2000, the canvas bag with its coins was found, and retained as a symbol of the continuity of financial responsibility in the office of the Chest (and, one might say, the University's last reserve).

Early accounts

No accounts of the Chest earlier than the sixteenth century have survived. There are, however, two other sets of accounts surviving from the Middle Ages, the earlier of which is a small account book of expenses incurred by University officials in travelling to London on legal business over a period of three months in 1357-58. This is the earliest financial document in the University archives. The other earlier accounts are more interesting since they consist of a series of fifteen audited account rolls dating from 1464 to 1496. These are the annual accounts of the Proctors, two Masters of Arts annually elected as the official representatives of the University and responsible for its routine administration.

All these fifteenth-century rolls are audited accounts set out in a simple charge and discharge form, the balance at the end being given in running prose. This is a rough translation of the Latin in the first surviving roll:

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"the sum of the expenses and payments, together with £30 put into the Danvers Chest is £69 0s 8½d, and so, all reckonings having been made, the Proctors owe £3 17s 10d to the University, which sum they have paid to the Proctors for next year, and so they are quit." (Picture left: First Proctors' Account Rolls 1464-65)


'For the hanging of students'

It will be noted that the sums of money involved were not large; in the fifteen years for which these accounts survive in the fifteenth century, the average income of the University was £58 and the average expenditure was less than £45. The income came chiefly from fees paid by those taking degrees, from rents of a few houses which the University owned in Oxford and from customary receipts like the payment of 52 shillings a year for the hanging of the students. The payments made by the proctors were mainly for university lectures, university ceremonies, the repair of buildings and so on, but two small items may be of particular interest.

Every year, the Proctors, who were the chief disciplinary officers of the University, made a claim to cover the expenses of some of their statutory duties, which included the patrolling of the streets at night and the hiring or maintenance of arms for the enforcement of their discipline. Payments under these two heads, the night watch and the upkeep of arms, were always made to the Proctors in round figures, with the note "ut placet iudicibus", - as the auditors please.

This definitely suggests that the Proctors were paid a sort of concealed salary, concealed in these suspiciously round figures for incidental expenses, and that the amounts of such payments were fixed by the auditors when the balance for the year was known. This method of paying salaries out of the annual balance must certainly have encouraged economy in University administration. One other interesting feature of these early accounts is that one of the largest items of expenditure in any one year was often the cost of a feast given to the auditors.


For want of an accountant

For the early sixteenth century no accounts survive, but there is ample evidence that accounts, and an accountant, were badly needed. As explained above, the University's assets were kept in a number of chests, the principal of which was the Chest of the Five Keys; others, a dozen or more, were still used for making loans to needy students, and contained a great variety of valuable pledges. But the general administration of these chests had not been audited for thirty years and the University Chancellor, Archbishop Warham, sent down his own representative to conduct a thorough inquiry. In a letter to the University the Chancellor blamed the Proctors, who, he said, in financial matters "opened their mouths to their own advantage".

When the proctors came to submit their annual account, it was said they got their own friends elected as auditors, and where they should have made a profit for the University they actually left it poorer by including "vain and superfluous charges"; in modern terms, they fiddled their expense account – ut placet iudicibus. So far as the chests were concerned, the Chancellor's inquiry in 1510 showed that something like a third of the assets had mysteriously disappeared.


But worse was to follow, for in 1545 the University discovered that the all-important Chest of the Five Keys had been robbed and a great part of its contents had gone. On December 17th the University Convocation ordered that what remained should be put back into the Chest of the Five Keys, and this was to be repaired and deposited in the house of the treasurer of University College. A receipt by Dr Leonard Hutcheson, Master of University College, for 377 ounces of plate then in the Chest of the Five Keys, is still to be found in the University archives.

A month later Convocation turned its attention to the other chests, and ordered that all the pledges should be sold. Thereafter the Chest of the Five Keys survived alone. Any loans which might be made were made from this chest, but its primary use was a sort of trust pool for University administration.

No regular source of income

Up to the mid-sixteenth century the only series of annual accounts was that of the Proctors. The Vice-Chancellor, administrative head of the University, does not appear to have kept any accounts for the simple reason that he does not appear to have had any regular source of income to administer.

This is exemplified in the earliest Vice-Chancellor's account roll covering the three years 1547-50. This account is probably the direct outcome of the perturbation following the despoiling of the Chest in 1545. This document is a sheet of parchment in simple charge and discharge form. The sums involved are very small. The total receipts for the three years were £31 17s 0d and of this sum £20 was from two legacies, and the remaining £12 came from fines imposed in the University's court. This last was, in effect, the only real annual income the Vice-Chancellor had to reckon with, and fines provided a very chancy £4 a year.

The reason for there not being any early Vice-Chancellor's accounts is simple - the Vice-Chancellor had nothing to account for. But a change soon came, and from a somewhat unexpected quarter.

The Reformation

The medieval University was essentially an ecclesiastical institution, designed to educate clerics. The Reformation, consequently, had a shattering effect on the University, for all, reformers or counter-reformers, were equally disturbed by the general air of insecurity. Many left the University with their studies incomplete; many of the academic exercises fell into disuse; the buildings in which those exercises were held were allowed to decay.

This state of affairs was rectified by Queen Mary Tudor, who has not generally been recognised as one of the great benefactors of the University. In 1554 she gave to the University three rectories with an annual rent roll of about £130. This income was to be used to repair the Divinity School, to rebuild the old Schools of Arts and to revive many of the academic and religious practices which the Reformation had swept away.

'Bloody Mary' as benefactor

In the year in which Queen Mary made her benefaction to the University the counter-Reformation really got under way. Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were brought from the Tower of London to defend their Protestant heresies. They were brought to the Divinity School, where brambles and nettles then grew against the walls, and they were forced to dispute for their faith with learned doctors of the University. Their opinions were condemned, and within two years all three were burnt at the stake in Broad Street.

This is the setting of Queen Mary's benefaction. One of the earliest charges on the benefaction was the payment for writing out the examination of Archbishop Cranmer, but the bulk of the income in the early years was devoted to repairs and rebuilding. It is interesting to note, incidentally, that all the financial responsibility for the rebuilding of the schools was entrusted by the University to the first President of St. John's College, who was later dismissed from his post as President by the founder of that College for misappropriation of college funds. It is a lesson which the University never tired of learning.

A renaissance in University finance and accounting

But Queen Mary's benefaction, born of the counter-reformation, inaugurated a renaissance in University finance and accounting. The importance of her benefaction can best be assessed if one remembers that all the annual revenue the University managed to acquire in the preceding three centuries amounted to no more than the £58 a year which the Proctors administered. Now the University's revenue was tripled, and moreover, the control of the greater part of this income was given to the Vice-Chancellor. A new series of accounts is now available, far exceeding the Proctors' accounts in variety and interest.

The present day University accounts have evolved from this early form of Vice-Chancellor's account roll which itself is a direct outcome of Queen Mary Tudor's attempt to re-establish Roman Catholicism in the University.


Loose memoranda

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the procedure of accounting seems to have been for the Vice-Chancellor at the end of each year of his office to present his accounts to auditors, who were senior members of the University nominated annually for this purpose. The documents produced at this stage were presumably just loose memoranda and receipted bills. When the auditors agreed the accounts, two copies were written on separate sheets of parchment by the University Registrar, one copy for the Vice-Chancellor and one copy for preservation in the University Chest. From about 1626 a third copy of these accounts was entered in book form, but the explanation of this requires another brief digression into University history.

Sir Thomas Bodley's legacy

Queen Mary's benefaction failed in its immediate purposes, and within fifty years the old Schools of Arts had again become ruins and had to be rebuilt on a different plan in the early seventeenth century. Again the University attracted a great benefactor, Sir Thomas Bodley, who in the year 1598 offered to refound the University Library. Sir Thomas had discussed with Sir John Bennet, MP for the University, a project for building new schools and adjoining his library, and Bennet had undertaken to raise money for this purpose from well-wishers to the University.

At his death, Bodley bequeathed his considerable estate to the University and willed that part of it should be devoted to building a third storey on the Schools quadrangle which the University had begun to build in 1613, the year of Bodley's death. The total amount spent on building the Schools quadrangle from 1613 to 1621 was over £10,000, a figure without precedent in University finance.

Throughout this period no detailed accounts appear to have been kept of University expenditure on the building, and there are only two partial accounts made about 1615 by the executors of Sir Thomas Bodley's will. Sir John Bennet, it is interesting to note, not only raised money directly for the University's share of the building, but he was also one of Bodley's executors, and in 1621 he was prosecuted in Parliament for gross bribery in his office as Judge of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. In the course of this prosecution it also appeared that he had defaulted with £750 of Bodley's bequest.

Via parchment scroll to paper books

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The scandal which followed on this revelation of Bennet's defalcations had one notable result. In 1624 the University decreed that the Vice-Chancellor should render an annual account of income and expenditure on the Schools account together with his own general account. The first effect of this was the compilation of an account of expenditure on the schools for the three years 1621-24, written on a parchment roll ten and a half feet long. Undeterred by this lengthy piece of accounting, the Registrar then copied out the whole account again into a paper book, and thereafter all future accounts, both Vice-Chancellor's and Proctors', were copied into a series of account books which were maintained without any major change until the late nineteenth century. (Image: Vice-Chancellor's Accounts 1650-52)

All this was one result of the Sir John Bennet scandal, an affair which had lengthy reverberations. In the Bodleian Library accounts the claim against Bennet was carried on the books for a hundred and fifty years, down to 1783. During the whole of that period the accounts contain entries of "unpaid obligations" which include Bennet's defalcations and the sum of £500 which the library lent to Charles I in 1642 but never recovered.

Having made his account book for the current accounts, the Registrar, in 1626, received from the Chest all the earlier extant account rolls, and copied all these, with the exception of the fifteenth-century Proctors' rolls into the new account books, so that these books now contain a more or less complete series of accounts from the mid-sixteenth century. These books did not, however, supersede the use of parchment sheets which were still used, and kept in roll form down to 1727 for the Vice-Chancellor's account and down to 1824 for the Proctors' account.

The transfer to the Registrar and his transcription of all the old account rolls in 1626 was connected with another financial spring-cleaning of the University, for it was in that year that the University found itself gravely in debt; its rents were unpaid and it owed nearly £2,000 to the Bodleian estate. Delegates were appointed to consider what steps could be taken to wipe out these debts, and having adopted various financial expedients, they came to the momentous decision that the:

"moneys expended on Dinners at the time of the Vice-Chancellors and Proctors Accounts may conveniently be spared for a time."

The need for recognised procedures

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College statutes show that from the earliest times members of the University clearly understood the value of some recognised procedure for accounting and auditing. The earlier statutes of Merton College, confirmed in 1274, contain elaborate regulations for auditing the accounts of the warden, the bursars and the bailiffs of college properties. The statutes of New College show how early the colleges began to recruit trained bursary clerks, for the statutes of 1400 provide for the appointment of a chapel clerk who should be taught grammar and writing, unless already well grounded in these subjects, and who should be employed on writing out accounts, copying muniments and generally assisting the bursar and treasurer. 

But perhaps the most clear-sighted college administrators were those men of Balliol who in their revised statutes of 1507 stipulated the number of treasurers and bursars required for college business and decreed that they should not be sluggish, but should be kept awake by labour.

As the Oxford colleges founded in the Middle Ages were all landowning bodies, members of the college were familiar with the accepted forms of manorial accounting; they were prepared to apply those to the accounts of the University as a whole, and they could call on the services of clerks trained in manorial accounting. The University accounts which survive from the late Middle Ages show the result of this conjuncture. They are normally well written and well set out; they are conservative in form (in fact they remain unchanged in form up to the nineteenth century); but they show rather a philosophic approach to some of the sacrosanct rules of accountancy.

Clerks and amateurs

Oxford may have been a training school for accountant's clerks, but the University, though employing the clerks to good purpose, generally preferred to leave the direction of its accounting and auditing to enlightened amateur financiers chosen from among its own senior members. This sometimes produced a disharmony between the clerk who knew how an account should be presented and the University amateur accountant or auditor who insisted on altering the customary forms to suit his own habit of mind.

In 1278 the bailiff of one of the Merton College estates in Surrey tried to ease his conscience by writing at the foot of his account "non impugatur scrptor ordo rectarum et expensarum in rotulo isto" (the order of the receipts and expenses in this roll is not to be attributed to the writer).

Turning now to the auditing of accounts, there are instances of accounts being audited when in draft and then rewritten in a different form for preservation. In the Bodleian Library is the very detailed and interesting account of the building in 1664-69 of the Sheldonian Theatre, a gift to the University by Gilbert Sheldon, Archbishop of Canterbury. This account is described as:

"The whole account of the building and beautifying the Theatre at Oxford, stated, audited and allowed,"

by the Archbishop, the Dean of Christ Church (Dr Fell) and the Receiver-General of the diocese of Canterbury. But on the last page is the contemporary memorandum,

"that this account was audited not from the accounts in this book (which are all confused) but from accounts drawn up by Dr Fell's own hand which were exhibited by him at the time of the passing this account".

Auditing and 'clerical errors'

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It appears from this and similar examples that it was the custom in the University for accounts to be audited from the original bills and draft accounts, and there may be changes of form and order in the accounts as finally written out for preservation. (Image:  Vice-Chancellor's Accounts 1697-8).

Herein lay a possible cause for serious error because in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; it appears to have been quite usual for the auditors or for those responsible for the expenditure to check the draft account and the bills but to sign as correct the final fair copy account which may have been written after the draft account had been approved. This was a particularly dangerous practice because the fair copy was not always carefully collated with the original draft.

There is a good instance of the kind of confusion which resulted from this practice in the account for the Ampthill Hospital, a charity administered by a select body of Visitors being representatives of the University. On 24 June 1766 the Visitors of the Hospital entered a memorandum in their account book:

"upon a review of the preceding account it appears that through the negligence of the person employed to transcribe the same at the last audit held November 10 1764, the sum of two hundred and ninety eight pounds 16s 11¼d, was carried over to the debtors side instead of one hundred and ninety eight pounds 16s 11¼d, which mistake therefore we think proper to correct, transferring to the subsequent account balance only of two hundred and eleven pounds 3s 11¼d."

The final form of the accounts for 1764 has been signed by the Vice-Chancellor, the Dean of Christ Church, the Warden of All Souls College and the Regius Professor of Divinity; two years later they very properly decided to correct a mistake which, though it involved a sum amounting to about 30% of the normal income of the charity, had passed unnoticed since it was made after they had agreed the audit but before they signed as auditors. Luckily, the Visitors of the Ampthill Hospital were auditors of their own accounts and were not perturbed by what they considered to be a minor clerical error.

One such incident occurred in 1641-42. At the end of 1641, Dr Samuel Fell, Dean of Christ Church, (who is suspected of being the subject of that well-known ditty:

"I do not like thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell,
But this I know and know right well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.")

wrote to the Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Prideaux, Rector of Exeter College and now also Bishop of Worcester, to inform him that the delegates of accounts, that is, certain heads of colleges elected as auditors, had taken exception to four items in his accounts, amounting in all to £96 2s 9d. Prideaux replied from Worcester in a letter which was copied into the University's official account book. He pointed out that the four items were expenditure which might well have been borne by colleges or individual members of the University.

But in one case, that of a contribution to a visiting Greek who was recommended to the University by the King and Chancellor, he had paid the sum required on the grounds of policy, and in another case, the mending of the water pipes connected to Carfax Conduit, he had paid for the work in order to avoid undue delays. In each case he pointed out ways in which the University might "disburden" itself of these charges by calling on certain colleges to pay, but he did not feel called upon to return to Oxford to "be the collector". Obviously, Prideaux intended to do no more about it and the auditors, being heads of colleges with ecclesiastical ambitions, could hardly be expected to take drastic action against an accountant who happened to be not only a vice-chancellor but also a bishop.

The human element

There was always a very human element in University accountancy in those happy days before double entry and other complex improvements made their strangely belated appearance in nineteenth-century Oxford.

The entries in the Chest Book, made in running prose and never tabulated are in striking contrast with the annual accounts, they show clearly that University accounting aimed at an annual settlement of official responsibilities and was not intended to provide a statement of the University's over-all financial position. If this had been the intention, the last entry in the Chest Book would have caused the gloomiest forebodings; on 24 April 1756 the sum of £815 was withdrawn from the Chest with the laconic entry "et sis remanet in cista nihil" (and so nothing remains in the Chest).

During the 18th century, the keeping and auditing of the University's accounts illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the administration at that time. The University was not large or rich; numbers declined early in the century, and therefore fees also declined, but benefactions and rents increased. Nor did the accounts cover all the activities. The main accounts were the general and the schools accounts but there were also separate accounts for the proctors, the Press, the Bodleian and the Sheldonian theatre. All these were audited by the delegates of the accounts and kept in the traditional form described above, which was designed to prevent defalcation rather than be informative. Thus the Press's accounts were in a state of confusion for much of the century. However, most delegates and officers were honest and the only Vice-Chancellor known to have misappropriated funds, William Delaune, 1702-06, was forced to repay his theft.


Bible money

Moving forward into the 19th century, for the first fifty years, the University appeared to be not much in need of funds, disbursing £1,200 a year to various good causes, largely funded by the Press. This was the success story of the age; the Walton Street complex was acquired in the 1830's, the New York office was opened in 1896. In 1841-45 the Press gave the University £33,000 towards the Ashmolean Galleries, in 1850, £50,000. Most of this surplus income appears to have been generated by the sale of Bibles, reflecting the evangelical movements of the time.

However, the beneficence that this allowed the University was brought to a halt by the 1852 Royal Commission on the State, Discipline, Study and Revenues of the University and Colleges which forbad the University from spending money on non-academic purposes.

Salaried officers

During the 1860's there was constant criticism of the management of the University's finances, and in June 1868, the Curators of the Chest were established to take over all the financial duties previously the responsibility of the Vice-Chancellor. A salaried Secretary and two clerks were also established at this time. The second such Secretary, William Gamlen, held office from 1873 to 1919, and was a partner in Morrell, Peel and Gamlen, a local firm of solicitors who handled much University legal work up to the dissolution of the partnership in 1998. He was the first professional non-academic officer, though a lawyer, not an accountant.

A further Commission, set up by Gladstone, imposed a common accounts format for the University and colleges, which was used from 1871 until the reforms of the Franks Commission in 1967. The Commission was baffled by some aspects of internal financing, and the consequent complexity of accounting required, for example, the analysis of charges to students in 1938 to be compiled on a sheet of paper measuring two feet along each side.

The Curators also managed the estate, and in 1876 agreed to borrow up to £60,000 to build the Examination Schools. There was no budget and when complete the building cost £107,000, excluding £34,000 of interest on the loan. For some years, the income and expenditure account continued to run at a surplus, though this was largely due to the contributions of the Press and the practice of treating monies from life members as revenue, rather than investing them as required by statute. From 1893, however, deficits appeared and by 1911, the University had run down trust fund balances and had no further resources.

A new Finance Board

Council, it appeared, had little interest in financial matters; it was only in 1898 that they accepted a proposal from the Curators that all applications for funds should state from where the money would be found. In 1870, they had, unbidden, given Council an estimate of income and expenditure for the coming year, but this was only formalised in 1903. At other times, Council ignored or sidelined the Curators, despite protests. The Secretary was held in such low esteem that he had to deposit a bond against his good behaviour with the University, and indeed there was no statutory requirement for such a post until 1912. In 1909, when Lord Curzon presented far-reaching governance reforms, he accepted that the Curators were not the lead financial body, but proposed a new Finance Board, leaving the Curators as 'an accounts office, an estates committee and office of works.'


A new Board of Finance

The Chancellor from 1907 to 1925, Lord Curzon, saw finance as "the clue to the majority of University problems, and the condition of the majority of University reforms". In 1912, dissatisfied with the Curators of the Chest, he created a new Board of Finance charged with making comprehensible accounts for the University and colleges, to raise college contributions towards University purposes, and to create the more efficient administration of finance, ambitions that were not to be met for almost a century. In 1913 the Board sought control over departmental funds, another long-running story, but faced with great opposition on all sides, Council decided to accept voluntary contributions. The autonomy of departmental finances, only finally ceasing with the new finance system in April 2004, meant that, for example, in 1953/54 the University's annual accounts totalled 425 pages.

Not to be deterred, in 1915 the Board tackled college accounts, whose format had been set since 1881, but did not proceed when it realised that such a change needed the consent of every college, which was clearly not likely to be forthcoming. After these defeats, the functions of the Board were transferred back to the Curators of the Chest in 1919. This restored the influence of the Chest such that Council had to consult it on any money spend. It was said to have a "reputation for special sagacity and strength of purpose, and employed methods which bordered upon the obscure".

Further attempts were made to extend the Chest's influence over a wider field. The Asquith commission in 1920 considered that the University should be responsible for the colleges' accounts but this was fought off again. Curiously, it also recommended that the Chest review college catering every 3 years and encourage centralised buying, a exercise that staggered on until abolished formally in 1963. The Commission also recommended permanent government support for the University, and in 1922 Oxford received its first state grant of £30,000.

Government funding

Government funding increased as the wider economic depression produced falls in endowment income. In 1929 the University bid for an increase from £95,500 to £110,000 but was only granted £97,500. It was only after the Second World War that government money became available for capital funding. Before then, the University had to rely wholly upon private generosity, of which Lord Nuffield was the prime example in the inter-war period. Throughout this period there were calls for reform and, like today, arguments that Oxford should emulate the successful American universities.

Things progressed slowly. After 1945, concern about the state of buildings led to the first major appeal which in 1957-58 raised £1.6m. At the same time, the government supported expansion in university education in which Oxford shared, its University Grants Committee (UGC) grant increasing from £30,000 in 1922 to £5.2m in 1963 and now to over £120m. However, the quinquennial planning set up in the years of plenty collapsed in the 70s, and real cuts in funding began in 1981. The introduction of formula funding by the UGC put the University in deficit in 1985. To cope, spending was reduced between 1985 and 1990 by 11%.

Into the 21st Century

The standing of the Curators was damaged by the Owen case in the 1930's when a senior academic sold worthless patents, a situation ignored by the Curators. The resultant court case against the University led Council to take steps to restrict the powers of the Curators, until the Franks Commission established the structure that pertained until 2000 in which a Resources Committee dealt with budgetary affairs and allocations, the Curators becoming more of a stewardship committee than taking any active role in policy-making.

Proctors' Accounts 1492-3

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Following the North Commission, and the subsequent consideration of its recommendations for a simplified and more coherent committee structure, the Curators were finally abolished in 2000, and its remaining responsibilities disbursed amongst the new committees that we have now, primarily to Planning and Resource Allocation Committee (PRAC) and the Finance Committee. The Chest was renamed the Finance Division, although occasionally post still arrives addressed to the Chest.In 2007 the Finance Division was able to consolidate its previously fragmented operations into one office in Hythe Bridge Street. The problems remain much the same as they have always been, but the sums are greater. After all, Oxford would not get very far these days on the fifty-two shillings a year it began with.

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: Finance Division
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       Oxford, OX1 2ET


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