The future of scholars’ gowns hangs in the balance after Wednesday night’s OUSU Council meeting saw a narrow vote in favour of mandating the sabbatical officers to consult students on lobbying the University to change its sub fusc policy.
A consultation will be held, in the form of a non-binding poll sent to all students regarding the wearing of scholars’ gowns in examinations for top-achieving students. The motion will be presented again after the poll has taken place in the next council meeting, where a decision will be made as to OUSU’s formal position.
The motion passed with 21 voting in favour, 18 against and three abstaining.
The motion was proposed by Matilda Agace and Isobel Cockburn, both from Wadham College. Cockburn argued that the use of differential gowns can “cause quite a lot of stress” to candidates and that they “create an academically hierarchical environment”.
The motion further noted that prelims, following which a minority of students are awarded the more prestigious gowns for outstanding results, “are not an adequate measure of potential”.
The proposers cited evidence that points towards an observed negative impact that differential gown usage can have on the wider student population. This was particularly noted among women, BAME and disabled people who, in an OUSU Welfare survey, were found to be more likely to be “stressed” or “overwhelmed” at Oxford.
The motion noted that “the gender attainment gap at Oxford is the worst in the country”, which along with meant that OUSU and the University should be doing all they can to decrease stress around exams.
Speaking to Cherwell, Isobel Cockburn said: “The idea came about from discussions with friends before finals. Everyone (tutors included) seemed to agree that the notion of scholars’ gowns is ridiculous in 2017, as it promotes a visual display of superiority which is simply unnecessary.”
In 2014, while men made up 54 per cent of the undergraduate student body, they received 60 per cent of the firsts, whilst women made up 46 per cent of the student body and received only 40 per cent of the firsts.
Others at the meeting, however, suggested that although there may be a correlation between scholars gowns and anxiety, the gowns themselves were not the cause.
It was pointed out that during a similar referendum held on the future of sub fusc in 2014 it was argued that the formal dress acted as a “leveller” during examinations, and a starkly different gown seemed to make this submission less credible. Oxford is currently the only university in the country to have such a differentiated system of gowns for exams.
Scholars’ gowns are also awarded to students who receive organ or choral scholarships to attend the University.
The motion was not against the wearing of scholars’ gowns by eligible students at other occasions, such as at formal hall.
Speaking to Cherwell, Harrison Edmonds, a high-profile campaigner in the ‘Save Sub Fusc’ campaign of 2014, said: “A move to abolish scholars’ gowns, or subfusc and gowns more generally, from exams, risks abandoning some of the traditions that help make Oxford University what it is.
“Exams are a very stressful period of time, and [it is] entirely possible to opt out of wearing subfusc if you believe it will impact on your performance.”
University regulations already state that only the commoners’ gown should be worn for oral or viva exams. This followed a petition in 2016 which gained 553 signatures, warning that the wearing of scholars’ gowns during this type of examination could cause biased results.
A university spokesperson said it had not yet been notified by OUSU of the motion. “Academic dress for students is determined by the Vice- Chancellor in consultation with the Proctors,” they said.