In 2015, Oxford students voted in favour of subfusc being worn to exams. When the question was debated, the central argument put forward in favour of keeping up the tradition was that subfusc acts as a mark of equality. No matter what your background or ethnicity, everyone walks into exams in the same black and white. From Wednesday to Friday of this week, OUSU will be asking students a new question: “Should OUSU oppose the wearing of differential gowns in examinations?”, or in other words, should we keep scholars’ gowns?
Some will argue that we should preserve them, valuing tradition for tradition’s sake. But as students here, we can choose which traditions to embrace, which to push to end entirely, and which to limit and adapt. We are responsible for the traditions we keep alive from one year to the next—we can’t wave them away as part of “what makes Oxford what it is”. Oxford can change. Sometimes, Oxford should change.
The hierarchical gown structure is fundamentally in conflict with ideals of community and equality that the University espouses, all the more so because the division between those wearing scholar’s gowns and those wearing commoner’s gowns is visually striking. Recently, it was decided that in exams involving face-to-face contact with examiners, candidates should all wear commoner’s gowns to neutralise the risk of bias. While the particular worry about bias on the part of examiners doesn’t apply to the case of written papers, many students are made to feel uncomfortable and nervous by the presence of a visual reminder of what they might perceive as their academic inferiority. This isn’t just a hypothetical.
One student echoes the concerns of many: “Exams are stressful enough without being forcibly reminded that you didn’t do as well as other people the last time round.”
Another said: “Not having a scholar’s gown has been really embarrassing for me. I don’t like being reminded of not doing as well as I’d have liked in Prelims when I’m anxious enough as it is.”
Apart from the fact that it creates division in the student body, there is also a clear gender bias in who is awarded scholars’ gowns. “I walk into the tent and it’s all the boys wearing the gowns,” one student said. “I already feel inferior being a girl here, let alone a woman of colour, and to just be reminded of every alienating feeling while standing in the tent is the most disheartening thing before an exam.”
The intensity of the problem varies from subject to subject, and is particularly sharp in STEM subjects, where not only are men the majority, but are also disproportionately awarded firsts. Indeed, several women say they only wear their scholars’ gowns to try to correct for the gender imbalance in who is awarded scholarships in their subject: “I couldn’t stand that the men looked as if they were cleverer.” We need to be asking ourselves as a community, is all this really necessary?
The decision as to whether to wear your scholars’ gown to exams also puts scholars in an uncomfortable position. On the one hand, you might get a confidence boost that staves off impostor syndrome, but on the other you might do so at the expense of your friends’ confidence. Whatever people decide to do, it’s an uncomfortable dilemma. One student said: “I didn’t wear my gown because it encourages us to judge each other, even if subconsciously, in quite a nasty way”. One student pointed to the cost—it’s £45 and not all colleges buy them for you—and others said that wearing a scholar’s gown ended up feeling counterproductive: “I didn’t like the idea of having the pressure to live up to it.”
The question put to you in this week’s consultation isn’t about personal decisions—no one wants to single out anyone for blame. It’s about ending a practice that isn’t really working for any of us. The poll isn’t technically binding but the result will almost certainly be confirmed by OUSU Council next term. Whatever happens won’t necessarily influence university policy, but OUSU is certainly a powerful voice within the university. Students who are not eligible for the gowns are unnecessarily affected in a way that risks damaging their performance. Students who can wear the gowns are faced with an arbitrary dilemma. Let’s put people first and tradition second—vote yes!