Every Oxford college has a head of house who is responsible for chairing the governing body and making sure that the voice of their college is heard in wider university matters. Depending on the college, this position may be officially known as the master, the president, the warden or the principal, but one thing that is common to them all is that the job normally comes with a rather nice house.
As a student you can usually expect to encounter your college head of house primarily on one of two occasions: when you are invited to their residence for a social event, or during the revered principal’s collections. Their nature varies on a college-by-college basis, but they generally involve an annual meeting between the student, the principal and the student’s personal tutor to discuss progress and identify any difficulties they might be facing.
Unsurprisingly, the thought of such a meeting is daunting to many. As is only fitting for any ancient Oxford tradition, all involved are expected to wear their academic gowns. For most, this meeting is only a formality and is all over and done with very quickly, but for those who are not doing as well as expected, this may be more of an ordeal.
The other main occasion when students interact with the principal is when they are invited to events. I have attended music recitals, drinks evenings and even a fireworks display at the principal’s house during my time at Oxford. These events are always complemented by unlimited free wine, so are naturally very popular. It was slightly alarming, however, on bonfire night when the quite substantial wine-drinking was followed by everyone lighting their sparklers. Thankfully the principal’s (quite spectacular) house is still standing. I have overheard several students come away from an evening at the principal’s house confessing their new-found ambition to be a college principal, all on account of the more than amicable living quarters.
The other memorable role of a college principal is the saying of grace before formal dinners. Once we are all seated in the dining hall, chattering amongst ourselves, pouring generous glasses of wine and trying to resist eating the bread rolls before we’re officially allowed to, the high table enters. Only senior members of the college, including the principal, are allowed to sit at the high table which is located at the end of the hall facing the students. As the high table enters, we are expected to stand up and remain silent until they are seated. The principal will then say grace (in Latin of course) and a hurried ‘Amen’ will echo around the hall before paused conversations quickly resume. With a mixture of vital decision-making and ceremonial tradition the head of house is quintessentially an Oxonian role.