Oxford Heads of Houses: roles and trends in recent appointments

The Head of House role of a College within Oxford University is a nuanced one. Each Governing Body places it own interpretation on the requirement, according to need at the time, but three key elements are common to all colleges.

The first element of the role is the obvious task of chairing the Governing Body in what is usually a highly democratic environment. The way in which decisions get made can often be the key to how they get implemented. Each Fellow will expect to have an equal voice in debate and this can require skilful chairing.

The second element of the role is that of assuming responsibility for executing the will of the Governing Body, although s/he will be able to rely on the Officers of the College, particularly the Bursar, Senior Tutor and increasingly the Director of Development. The role has neither the features of a non-executive chair nor those of chief executive. However, overall responsibility for the administration of a college falls to the Head of House.   This is the multi-faceted element of the role, but at its core includes all aspects of the effective operation of the College as a place of education, research and scholarship, and for fulfilment of its charitable purpose.

The third element of the role is the critical need for the principal to represent the College externally, at a number of different levels. S/he will attend meetings of the Conference of Colleges (and other university committees) and the Governing Body will expect its views to be advanced successfully, such that the voice of the College is heard when influencing wider university decision-making, especially concerning matters of direct concern. Increasingly, fund-raising forms a large part of the external role of Head of House. S/he leads on alumni relations, travelling when necessary, and represents the College to all other external stakeholders, whether in academia or Government.

A review of recent prospectuses reveals a fairly uniform description of the ideal candidate. Most are open to candidates from outside academia, with the important caveat that they have sufficient affinity with higher education and the capacity to engage with an academic community. Recent examples include:

  • Experience of, or evident empathy with, academic life and higher education in the UK context; and be cognisant of the challenges and opportunities peculiar to these spheres of activity (Lincoln 2012)
  • Sufficient stature and empathy to engender respect from a community of scholars, and to engage with and guide the Governing Body in its strategic planning for the College (Brasenose 2013)
  • Demonstrable interest in the academic and intellectual life of a leading higher education institution, both in terms of research and teaching (New College 2014)
  • Profound commitment to the academic values and the purpose of the College, and a keen interest in developing the intellectual life of its Fellows and students (Corpus Christi 2015)

The language is always inclusive of candidates from outside academia (e.g. Whitehall, professional services, media) but the boundaries vary, with some colleges appearing to require a closer connection. Regardless of background, a record of distinction is needed in the candidate’s chosen field, with strong intellect and a commensurate level of leadership experience. Direct experience of the Oxbridge collegiate system is rarely mentioned, but most candidates assume that an Oxbridge degree is at least an advantage.

A comparison of the current Heads of Houses1 with those in post ten years ago2 reveals some interesting facts. Significantly, the gender balance is little changed (eight today, an increase of only one since 2005), although during the period a number of Colleges appointed their first woman principal (Oriel, Pembroke, St Antony’s, St John’s and Wolfson). Only four colleges have the same principal who was in post in 2005 (Jesus and Lady Margaret Hall, both of whom have a change of principal in 2015, and St Catherine’s and Harris Manchester). The average tenure of those in post in 2005 is almost exactly 10 years.3

Overall, 70% of colleges have an academic as their principal, a statistic that is little changed over the period. However, whereas there were seven economists as Heads of Houses in 2005, today there are just three. Lawyers have always featured, although more prominently of late. There are four QCs as current Heads, compared with two lawyers in 2005. The newest group of principals is that of former Vice-Chancellors. None had that background in 2005, whereas there were four when this survey was completed.4 Media is slightly better represented today, with three Heads compared with two in 2005.

The tradition of former civil servants (including diplomats) being Heads continues; there are three today compared with four in 2005, although there has not been a retired Cabinet Secretary appointed in Oxford since 1998. Of the nine Cabinet Secretaries since the Second World War, three became Oxbridge Heads of Houses, Burke Trend (Lincoln), Robin Butler (University) and Richard Wilson (Emmanuel).

In summary, the role of Head of House continues to attract candidates from a range of backgrounds and Governing Bodies are willing to consider well-qualified people whose careers have not been substantially spent in academia. The number of women being appointed seems to have remained stubbornly low and there seems to have been considerable interest more recently in the experience brought by candidates who have served as Vice-Chancellors in higher education.

Anthony Archer, February 2015

For further information email anthony.archer@bridgewaterleadership.co.uk or call +44 (0) 7721 504125.

1 those currently in post or due to take up post shortly
January 2005
3 ignoring Green Templeton and adjusted for some acting principalships
4 Sir David Watson, Principal of Green Templeton, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Brighton, died on 8 February, 2015.