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No more scholars’ gowns at viva exams

Candidates of oral exams for undergraduate and postgraduate science degrees are now required to wear commoner’s gowns to avoid bias

New regulations have been adopted which will impose commoner’s gowns for all candidates at viva exams, regardless of whether they own a scholar’s gown.

The Proctors approved of the demands made in the Oxford University Society of Biomedical Sciences’ petition this week, making commoner’s gowns compulsory.

Science students including medics, biochemists and biologists as well as some MsC and DPhil students must attend viva exams in the final year of their course. They consist of a presentation of a research project in front of a jury, followed by questions, and can last up to six hours in some cases.

In previous years, undergraduates who had both types of academic dress could choose which one to wear, leading to potential unconscious bias from the examiners.

Concerns were raised in a Medicine examiner’s report in 2005, advising the candidates not to wear subfusc to their oral exams. Previous attempts were also made at solving the problem by abolishing gowns at vivas, a solution which was made impossible after students voted to keep the academic dress at OUSU’s referendum.

A petition to limit the risk of prejudice was launched in April 2016 under the initiative of Emily Gowers, Vice-President of OUSBMS. Attracting over 300 signatories in the first two days, the petition was backed by LMH, St Hugh’s, Balliol, St John’s and Teddy Hall JCRs.

With a final count of 553 signatures, the petition’s description stated, “Considering the efforts that Oxford makes to ensure that written exams are unbiased (e.g. candidate numbers), it seems ridiculous that during a viva the examiner has a full view of your academic history – and you’re wearing it!”

In addition to giving candidates wearing a scholar’s gown the benefit of the doubt, the petition argued that examiners were more likely to ask them difficult questions, resulting in a two-way disadvantage.

Some signatories suggested that the same should be applied to language orals.

The announcement of the Proctor’s decision was welcomed by OUSBMS president Joy Hodkinson. She commented, “There remain a multitude of ways in which examiners may be unconsciously biased in Viva Examinations, for instance, with regard to race, gender or regional accents.

“Despite this, I believe this change represents significant progress, particularly in relation to the University responding to the voices of the student body. Hopefully, the success of OUSBMS’s campaign will encourage students to pursue analogous initiatives relating to issues of equality in the future.”

Josh Newman, a recently graduated scientist and petition signatory, told Cherwell, “It’s so great to see what is often considered an archaic institution adapting it’s ways to ensure that all exams are fair and equal to all, regardless of past exam performance.”

He added, “Having sat my viva last year, it was plain to see how your gown could affect things – wearing my scholar’s gown, I was worried about whether this would change how my examiners treated me.”

In his message of support to the campaign in April, Newman addressed its opposition. “Yes, the scholar system is in place to reward individuals who have performed well, and the ability to wear a scholar’s gown is a perk of that – however, it is fundamentally not the case that such a system should have the ability to influence the outcome of future exams.

“As a scholar myself, I do agree with having the choice to wear your scholars gown to exams – it’s a personal choice. But as soon as that personal choice has the capability of impacting either your or somebody else’s grade undeservedly, then there is a problem.”

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