OUSU to hold university-wide referendum on sub-fusc

OUSU Council has voted to hold a referendum in Trinity Term 2015 on the future of subfusc.

Council agreed to ask students whether subfusc should be worn for exams. The motion passed with 58 votes for, 10 against and 1 abstention.

An amendment was passed that there be two questions; one on the wearing of gowns and one on the clothing underneath.

In a 2006 referendum on this issue, 81 per cent of students voted to keep the tradition of wearing sub fusc to university examinations. ‘Sub fusc’ refers to the formal clothing worn under gowns, primarily to matriculation, university examinations, and graduation.

The Proctors’ statutes define sub fusc as “a dark suit with dark socks, or a dark skirt with black stockings or trousers with dark socks and an optional dark coat; black shoes; plain white collared shirt; a black tie or white bow tie.”

The proposer of the OUSU motion and Vice President for Access & Academic Affairs, James Blythe, told Cherwell, “While the last referendum was clear, it was also nearly ten years ago – I want to make sure I can effectively represent the current student view on this issue. I don’t want students to think that this motion has been brought because anyone in OUSU is proactively seeking to abolish sub fusc.

“I plan to remain neutral in the debate: all I want is a clear and recent steer from the student body on what to say when the University asks for the student view.”

Lindsay Lee, OUSU’s Disabled Students Officer and seconder of this week’s sub fusc motion, told Cherwell, “The mandate the referendum gave is now outdated. Much has changed at Oxford since then, for the better: campaigning and awareness around liberation group issues has increased and improved, and there is reason to believe that today’s students may have a different opinion about sub fusc than students had a decade ago.

“Our OUSU Council motion simply says that it’s time again that students weigh pros and cons and speak for themselves about the way forward.”

Merton College Academic Affairs rep, Andrew Macarthur, commented, “A referendum on the wearing of subfusc in exams sounds like a very sensible idea. The question was last put to the student population quite some time ago and it’s something that’s relevant to all of us. I think a strong case could be made to the University that the rules should be relaxed.

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“I feel affection towards much of the tradition of Oxford, but I wouldn’t want my fondness for fancy dress to make other people’s exams more uncomfortable than they need to be.

“On the other hand, the end of exams would feel quite different if we abandon sub fusc: the romantic image of a celebratory punting trip (begowned, with Pimm’s and strawberries; a gentle breeze…) is a little bit Brideshead Regurgitated, but it will keep me going when I’m feeling tied to the library in Trinity Term.”

The University declined to comment on the OUSU motion.

Analysis: James Blythe argues why it’s time for a referendum on sub fusc

When I ran to be OUSU Vice-President (Access & Academic Affairs), I really didn’t expect to spend much time on, or in, that most peculiar aspect of Oxford life, academic dress. I certainly didn’t expect to be calling a referendum on the continued wearing of sub fusc, and I definitely have no vendetta against it. I’ve never knowingly opposed a fancy dress code in my life, and my personal experience of sub fusc was largely positive. I enjoyed having something to take my mind off the exam in the final moments alone in my room.

Nonetheless, I can also see plenty of arguments against sub fusc. In the days since my motion became public, I have heard students passionately argue that it is bad for access, that it worsens exam stress, and that it is more appropriate for ceremonies, not for the hard work of exams. Hearing strong and clear arguments from students on both sides, I plan to stay neutral in the debate.

I’m bringing this issue to a referendum because the University has signalled an intention to discuss the issue of sub fusc in exams (not ceremonies) in the next term or two. A group of examiners asked the Exams Panel to remove the requirement to wear full sub fusc. They argued that sub fusc was very different from their normal clothes, that it made them uncomfortable, and that it seemed anachronistic and put them off being examiners.

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I thought those were reasonable points, but suggested that they might easily also apply to students. At this point I was told that students wanted to keep sub fusc – every academic on the panel was thinking of the 2006 referendum.

That referendum has sunk into the collective consciousness of the University in a really remarkable way: offered the choice by a progressive Vice-Chancellor, students opted by a huge majority to keep sub fusc. Possibly because it came as a surprise to people, that view has become ossified as the permanent student opinion, and I don’t think that a single vote, representing the view of students who are no longer here, should be regarded as the view of all current students.

It is clear to me that for many in the University, nothing except a new referendum could ever shift their view of what students think. That’s why, if OUSU is to engage in the debate in University committees on this question, we must hold another vote. I have no idea what the eventual outcome will be. What is clear is that we need to hear from Oxford students here today, not just those who were here in 2006.

I’ve already seen people who are actually arguing for a vote to keep sub fusc disagree with holding a referendum: my plea at the beginning of this debate is not to confuse the process with the outcome. I am confident that this process is just and necessary.

If you’re passionate on either side, please don’t get angry about the idea of a referendum. It’s got to happen. Get involved. Lead one of the campaigns, persuade your fellow students. It could be the most niche Oxford political debate in a long time, but it’s an important one. I won’t be shaping this debate – but you could