Graduation: Celebrating the Arcane

Graduation is a wonderful thing: celebrating the achievement of students, admitting them to degrees and marking one of life’s milestones. For young undergraduates, this is a part of a series of transitions into adulthood, for older students it can be a change in direction. Graduation comes with trappings; the mix of a special formality in a communal setting.

As graduation has all these trappings, it is often the showcase for the Academic Registrars’ art. This is because there’s no right way to do a graduation. Different universities do it differently. There’s an inheritance from older universities, but the university can decide itself. You can do it in a hall, or a church or a stadium. You can do it with speeches, or songs or poems. You can make it traditional or modern (do have a look at DMU’s ceremonies).

I think that with a ceremony it’s nice if everyone does broadly the same. So it’s nicer if everyone wears a gown and is smart (within some sensible conventions). There’s a debate about the cost of gown hire, but no real requirement for dressing up beyond that, although the debate on formality will run and run. There are other debates that run and run too…

Rules on Academic Dress

Universities have regulations regarding their academic dress, which set out the gowns, caps and hoods, and how these are to be worn at different ceremonies. These are internally consistent at a university’s own ceremony, but one of the excitements comes with staff wearing the academic dress of different universities.

Take hats as an example. Some universities have banished the hats for graduating students. While Leeds specifies hats in its regulations, students on taught courses don’t wear them.

Those being awarded diplomas, first degrees and masters degrees at the University’s degree ceremonies wear academic dress: they do not, through long established University custom and practice, wear the cap (mortarboard) prescribed as part of full academic dress

University of Leeds: General Regulations: Academic Dress

Graduates of St Andrews don’t wear the hats that have traditionally been defined in their academic dress, including the distinctive John Knox Cap for those with doctorates. That doesn’t, I contend, mean that staff mustn’t wear hats at other universities’ graduations.

Hoods are another example. Traditional forms of doctoral dress have had different definitions, where the hood was only worn when the graduate was not wearing the coloured gown. Compare these versions from Leeds’ regulations

Academic Dress
PhD Black Master’s gown with PhD Hood
Full Academic Dress
PhD gown without hood
Academic Dress
Doctors: black Master’s gown with appropriate Doctor’s hood
Full Academic Dress
Doctors: appropriate Doctor’s gown, hood and cap

At their graduation Leeds PhDs now wear the green gown, green hood and a hat. Oxford DPhils aren’t so lucky, their full academic dress is the scarlet robe and hat. Given the variety of occasions that academic dress can be worn at Oxford, there are seven variations for holders of doctoral degrees (subfusc being the regulated suit and tie worn underneath)

1. Black gown (laced, except for DD)
2. Black gown and hood
3. Black gown, hood, square (or for women, a soft cap if desired), and subfusc
4. Convocation habit (black gown, hood and sleeveless cloak [chemir], square (or for women, a soft cap if desired), subfusc, and bands
5. Scarlet robe and appropriate cap
6. Scarlet robe with subfusc and appropriate cap (Full Academic Dress for D.Phil.s)
7. Scarlet robe with subfusc and bands and appropriate cap (Full Academic Dress for Higher Doctors)

Regulations relating to Academic Dress made by the Vice-Chancellor, as Authorised by Council

Armed with this list you can spot the mistakes in Morse/Lewis/Endeavor. The good news, for simpler universities, is that Oxford DPhils can be provided with both scarlet robe and hood and wear them together. It’s your university’s rules – they don’t have to wear subfusc either.

Making your own traditions

You don’t have to stick with how its been done before (really – do look at DMU’s ceremonies), there’s always a chance to tweak things. At NTU we have a new University Hall across the road from our main buildings, which meant we reimagined a number of things about graduation. As an example, we have the procession forming a guard of honour at the end and applauding the graduates across the road. It has a practical function, but it’s also one of the parts that people like most. It’s a tradition now.

Make your graduation ceremonies your own. Embrace traditions, but remember that they’re just things that someone thought up once, so don’t be a prisoner to them. Once it was a tradition to have the national anthem at ceremonies – does anyone still do that?

The universities who never made the batting order.

It was a distinctive phase in the history of British Higher Education. The UGC had planned for expansion after the Second World War through growing existing universities and university colleges. Many of these had retrenched during the 1930s (and certainly during the war) so there was capacity. Other forms of higher education also expanded, with many new teacher training colleges and new routes in technical colleges.

The UGC received proposals for new universities but only acceded to one, the University College of North Staffordshire under the persuasive leadership of A D Lindsay which opened at Keele in 1949. Through the 1950s civic university colleges grew to a size and maturity that they could be granted University title; when Leicester got its title in 1957 that process was complete. The UGC agreed to another new university college, at Brighton, and invented a sponsorship model that would allow innovation. It also agreed that there should be more new universities, and so a very strange competition was started.

The UGC accepted bids for new universities. They established a new universities sub-committee and this set out sorting out a batting order of existing bids and evaluating new ones. This is well covered in histories of the UGC and in the accounts (sometimes heroic) of the universities that were born from this episode in British HE history. However, more evocative are the untold stories, of the universities that never happened, whose files remain as a testament to the optimism of local promotion committees who tried to get a new university.

The Team List

The UGC file contains two different lists of those bids they received, which I have collated, together with other known examples from their files.

Potential UniversityFirst knowledge of application
BrightonNovember 1946
BournemouthOctober 1959
Bury St EdmundsJuly 1947
CanterburySeptember 1947
CarlisleFebruary 1947
ChathamMarch 1958
ChesterDecember 1960
ClevelandJune 1956
CornwallMarch 1963
CoventryFebruary 1955
Cumberland & WestmorlandJune 1961
FolkestoneMarch 1958
Gloucestershire (Cheltenham)February 1959
GuildfordJanuary 1962
HerefordAugust 1958
Isle of ManDecember 1958
LancasterApril 1947
Llandrindod WellsJanuary 1962
North WalesFebruary 1960
NorwichJune 1946
PlymouthDecember 1960
SalisburySeptember 1946
StamfordJanuary 1960
StevenageSeptember 1959
Tees-sideApril 1963
ThanetJanuary 1959
WhitbyAugust 1959
Wiltshire (Swindon)May 1961
YorkFebruary 1947

The UGC had considerable latitude in how it went about the process, with the sub-committee considering applications on their merits, with the UGC Chairman, Sir Keith Murray, setting the tone of discussions. At its meeting in October 1957 it noted the actively promoted proposals were Coventry, Gloucester/Cheltenham, Norwich, Thanet and York

The UGC still reported to the Treasury but was in communication with the DES. There were considerations from the part of the HE sector that DES controlled. So, for example, Dame Mary Smieton, the Permanent Secretary, wrote a helpful commentary on some of the leading contenders:

We are frankly rather surprised that the Cheltenham/Gloucester proposal is not making more headway. … So far as technology is concerned … we should be embarrassed by any proposal to develop university courses in technology in the Cheltenham/Gloucester area until the Bristol CAT [now Bath] has reached the limit of reasonable expansion, and that time is not yet in sight.

Smieton, M, 1961, Letter to Sir Keith Murray 23 January 1961 UGC 7/170 TNA

Time was of the essence. In effect, the batting order was driven by a set of criteria; focused on local support, including access to land and other amenities. The UGC also had an informal spatial plan, it was clear that they would not be placing two new universities in the same area. When York was approved, that knocked Whitby out. Blackpool’s chances declined as Lancaster firmed up its offering. Stamford had prepared a detailed bid, but other Lincolnshire towns became interested. A file note records the visit of the Town Clerk of Grantham.

Mr Guile said that interest in a possible University in Grantham had started up … when they heard that people were interesting themselves in the Stamford project. …
Developing the case for a University at Grantham, if there were to be one in that part of the world at all, they said:-
(1) While Grantham would not pretend to have the history and background of Stamford, it probably had a more lively culture at present and it certainly was more of an industrial centre.
(2) It was two-and-a-half times as large as Stamford and might therefore be able better to cope with the lodgings question. …

UGC File Note: Grantham 28 April 1961 UGC 7/235 TNA

Stamford had been suggested as a site by its local MP on the grounds of both its historical links with Oxford and Cambridge and the opportunities afforded by its new bypass. Despite producing a formal submission, Stamford did not get approval before the scheme closed.

UGC 7/235 TNA

Each of the files contains the stories of the bids: The Isle of Man gamely hoping that the UK government would fund a university there despite them being outside the fiscal system; the hope that a university city of Avalon would be built next to Glastonbury; the note that Wolverhampton has good sporting facilities and a strongly supported football team; and the prospect of 300,000 beds being available for students if a university were to be in Blackpool. The files contain limited signs of consultation with communities, but someone was moved to write to the UGC about Blackpool:

I beg to strongly oppose the current suggestion that a university for the North West of England should be established at, or on the outskirts of, Blackpool.
A university is supposed to be a place where young people absorb culture and learning not spivvery and paganism.

Britton, HW, 1961, Letter to UGC Chairman 3 February 1961 UGC 7/270 TNA

The rest of the correspondence is charming. Notes from the sub-committee members record the emerging picture, particularly as the bids come thick and fast. Indeed the UGC adopted a proforma letter to reply to enquiries from local authorities. By March 1961 the second tranche of proposals are agreed with the Treasury.

As hinted, the appointment of the Robbins Committee stalls developments. Once its report is published and the government changes, the situation is clear. The Town Clerk of Swindon hadn’t been that enthusiastic to start; his first submission notes that the council’s first task is to overcome the “widespread impression of Swindon as a drab and dreary town” such that it was not desired that the name of a university founded at Swindon should include the name Swindon, but rather be the University of Wessex. He keeps up a cheerful correspondence with the UGC over the next four years, worrying whether Bournemouth was getting ahead etc. In February 1965 he keeps the UGC informed of the prospects for a university.

UGC 7/251

It was too late. Copleston replied to say that he hadn’t tossed the letter in the waste-basket, that he hadn’t groaned, but he did hold off replying until the new Secretary of State had made this announcement:

On the question of new universities, the Government have considered the advice given by the University Grants Committee, and it is now clear that the target of 218,000 university places in 1973–74 is within the capacity of existing universities and other institutions of university status.
… the Government have decided that no more additional universities or accessions to university status will be needed for about 10 years …

Crossland, A, 1965 Statement on Higher Education, Hansard 24 February

At this point, the new university process ended. The UGC wrote to all the supporters, even those in abeyance, to say there was nothing further it could do about the proposals.

The UGC’s standard letter concluding the process TNA UGC 7/280

The next month, Crossland would go further in his Woolwich Polytechnic Speech.

‘Why should we not aim at … a vocationally orientated non-university sector which is degree-giving and with appropriate amount of postgraduate work with opportunities for learning comparable with those of the universities, and giving a first class professional training … let us move away from our snobbish caste-ridden hierarchical obsession with university status’

Crosland, A,1965, Woolwich Polytechnic Speech

From this would come the affirmation of the binary system and the creation of Polytechnics. Some of those authorities who wanted their technical colleges upgraded would get a Polytechnic instead. Some, such as Hereford, Glastonbury, Stamford and Salisbury, are still waiting.

The National Archives have the UGC files, Series UGC7 containing the sub-committee, its minutes and the individual files kept on each bid.