What does matriculation mean for Oxford students?

Everyone who wants to work for an Oxford degree has to matriculate, which means about 4,000 undergraduates a year as well as the students who come new to Oxford to start postgraduate courses. Each student has to be matriculated as an individual. Matriculation makes you a member of the University for life. It means you will always be able to use the Bodleian Library and when you graduate you will be a member of Convocation and able to elect the Chancellor and the Professor of Poetry. Even if you did not finish your degree or got suspended you would still be a member. This is not like membership of a club or society. It is a different kind of belonging. ‘Universitas’ is the Latin word for a ‘guild’ or corporation. The University is an independent body with special skills that are ‘knowledge’. The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars still constitute the University when it acts as a legal entity. So you become part of this body along with more than eight hundred years of others who have done so before you.

When did it originate and why?

Matriculation goes back to the medieval requirement that every Regent Master should keep a register. These were the Masters of Arts who taught undergraduates and who formed the main ruling body of the University. The register established who was a real student and deserved the University’s protection in the frequent town-and-gown fights. It also allowed a record to be kept of the student’s progress through the course to the stage where he could be examined for his degree (or ‘her’ degree from 1920). In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, once the colleges began to admit undergraduates, it became a formal university ceremony. In the nineteenth century the word ‘matriculation’ started to be used for the qualification for entry. Until 1960 Oxford set its own examinations, and the statutes still require ‘evidence that each candidate…is qualified for matriculation’.

What do students wear for it?

Students wear a cap, a gown and ‘subfusc’ for matriculation. Subfusc is dark formal clothing with a white shirt and a white bow tie for men and a black bow for women. Oxford students recently voted to keep this traditional gear for examinations when it was suggested that they could be allowed to wear ordinary clothes instead. They liked the sense of occasion it gives.

What is the Latin speech that the Vice-Chancellor reads out during the ceremony?

‘Scitote vos in Matriculam Universitatis hodie relatos esse, et ad observandum omnia Statuta istius Universitatis, quantum ad vos spectent, teneri.’
‘Know that you are today added to the Roll of the University and bound to obey all the statutes of this University so far as they apply to you.’

Are there any student traditions based around matriculation?

There’s been a recent tradition of the Mexican wave, and students generally celebrate by getting drunk or going on a tourist bus tour in full academic dress. There are matriculation dinners in colleges, which have their own traditions. It isn’t an initiation ceremony involving painfully proving you’ve got what it takes, though. You got in. You’ve got what it takes.

Have there been any changes to the matriculation process over the years?

It’s changed since the Middle Ages with the arrival of colleges which began arrangements for just a few Fellows, but slowly began to take responsibility for teaching undergraduates. Nowadays the college admits the student and presents him or her to the University to be put on its historic roll. You become a lifelong member of your college as well as a lifelong member of the University.

Professor Gillian Evans is author of the forthcoming book ‘The University of Oxford: A New History’