This article was written for the Oxford Student newspaper after it was announced that the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) were holding a referendum regarding the wearing of sub fusc (academic dress) in exams. The article can be found here, and was quoted in the national press. More information on the referendum can be found here.
State school pupils are five times less likely to apply to Oxford than their privately-educated counterparts. Evidence from free-school meals data and applications from different regions in the UK show further disparities. The reasons for this are multifaceted; inequalities in secondary education, myths about the admissions process and intimidating statistics can all contribute to the idea that Oxford “isn’t for me”.
However, when speaking to prospective students on open days and at access & outreach events, it’s not long before other concerns crop up. “Is it true you get fined for walking on the grass?” “Do you have to learn Latin?” “I heard you have to wear gowns for exams?” Oxford’s ‘quirks’, sub fusc included, probably seem inoffensive, perhaps even comical, to most of us. But they also contribute to an impression of Oxford as archaic, authoritarian and elitist. In fact, the first thing my friends said when I told them I was applying to Oxford was “don’t you have to wear gowns?” followed by; “and isn’t it full of posh dickheads?”
It might seem ridiculous now, but in the mind-set of my former self, these responses weren’t that surprising. We hadn’t encountered anything remotely comparable to sub fusc other than in Harry Potter films and TV news reports from Eton College.The image of Oxford students wearing gowns was inextricably linked to the idea of a University dominated by a public school ethos. And, when considering Oxford’s embarrassing admission statistics, it’s easy to see how something as trivial as what we wear in exams contributes to perceptions of Oxford as structurally elitist and unwelcoming.
Of course, this referendum isn’t going to solve Oxford’s access problems alone. Nor is it going to affect every sixth former’s impression of Oxford. But when confronting widespread accusations of social and economic elitism, a good place to start might be to stop forcing students to wear medieval attire.
Then there is the argument that we should embrace Oxford’s differences and traditions. In the words of one student posting on the Save Subfusc Facebook page, sitting exams in sub fusc “defines what it means to attend and study in this illustrious University” claiming that Oxford would lose some of its ”international distinctiveness” without it. Another commented that “a choice for a traditional university is a choice for the traditions it embodies”.
And it’s true that Oxford has benefited from openly offering an alternative system to other universities. But why resort to sub fusc as a means to demonstrate Oxford’s uniqueness when we could discuss our unique tutorial system, world-leading academic research, or the fact that the University offers some of the most supportive bursaries in the country? After all, aren’t these aspects of Oxford life more accurate and progressive descriptors of the University’s “distinctiveness”?
This is what is so insidious about the sub fusc debate. It represents the very worst of Oxford students and our self-important desperation to be recognised as successful, academic and distinguished. The infatuation with wearing sub fusc suggests that it is not enough to benefit from a world-class education, but that others must see that we are benefitting from it. That we must assert our educational privilege in the way we dress. Most perversely, this superficial tradition is often plagued with total ignorance of how such rituals might dissuade applicants from less privileged backgrounds.
Another claim from those who want to retain the compulsory wearing of sub fusc is formed from a twisted notion of parity. “Everyone is dressed the same, regardless of wealth or background” reads the Save Subfusc Facebook page. Firstly, this isn’t true – suits are expensive and don’t all look the same – perhaps something only noticed by students unable to afford the high quality attire of their fellow pupils.
More importantly, this attitude embodies the patronising assumption that what students care most about is how they look when sitting an exam and, more absurd still, what their peers are wearing. Do you think this is all we students on maintenance grants spend our time worrying about? The fact that we cope pretty well without wearing Abercrombie and Ralph Lauren during lectures, tutorials and seminars is clearly irrelevant to you – although it does make this sudden concern for economic equality appear slightly shallow. The entire argument reeks of privileged students instructing less-privileged students how to fit in, as if to say “I know how to make the plebs feel better about not being able to afford quality clothes; let’s make them wear expensive, uncomfortable, formalwear instead.” Meanwhile, the fact that the students most likely to feel at ease in sub fusc are those who wore similarly formal clothes during their public-school days is an inequity you are apparently happy to overlook.
I’m not arguing that everyone thinks of sub fusc as an uncomfortable, unnecessary expense. Likewise, although many are, not all sixth-form students are deterred by such an old-fashioned tradition. But this is exactly what this referendum is about. Nobody is voting to abolish sub fusc. Regardless of how students vote, academic dress will be maintained for matriculation and graduation. Even in the event that the rules are changed, anyone wishing to wear formalwear to exams will be free to do so. This referendum is merely asking the question of whether University rules should continue to force students to wear sub fusc in exams.
To vote to remove these rules is to recognise that all students have different preferences, and that these preferences should be respected. As much as you might disagree with my opinions towards sub fusc, whether you object to my choice to wear it is another matter entirely. By all means wear what you want – participate in this archaic tradition shrouded in social stratification if you wish. But please, don’t force me to do so too.