28 November 2011

Oxford puts degrees (and gowns) from other universities in their place

The annual College Record of the Oxford college where I was a Fellow for twelve enjoyable years has just arrived via snail-mail, revealing that one of the more bizarre manifestations of the university's superiority complex is still very much in evidence.

MA, Oxford?

I had arrived there after teaching at 'plate glass' (Lancaster) and 'red brick' (Manchester) universities, having previously acquired a 'red brick' BA and a 'plate glass' PhD. Such qualifications were not, however, enough for me to be allowed to supervise graduate students in as hallowed a place as Oxford. For that, I also had to acquire a locally awarded 'MA'.

For graduates of Oxford University, the normal route is pretty straightforward: all you have to do after your first degree is not to take any more exams, wait around for a few years and pay a fee for your BA to be automatically 'upgraded' to an MA.

For the rest of us to be allowed anywhere near a graduate student, we first had to be elevated to 'MA Status', achieved by the even simpler procedure of signing a form, returning it to the university offices and paying nothing at all.

MA Status, Oxford?

The year before this happened to me, my name in the College Record was followed by 'BA Reading, PhD, Essex'. The following year, the actual degrees were relegated to their proper place, i.e. in brackets after the more important news: 'MA Status (BA, Reading, PhD, Essex)'.

In the latest College Record, the brackets after names are still there, but 'MA Status' has been replaced by 'MA' - thereby implying that the person in question had been a proper Oxford graduate all along and in the first place, even if s/he had had to spend a few years somewhere else to pick up another degree or two.

One name on the current list caught my attention as something that might amuse (or annoy) American readers and/or graduates of Cambridge (England), followed as it is by: 'MA (BA Harvard, MSA George Washington, PhD Cambridge)'.

Q: What to wear for tea on an Oxford college lawn?

Nor was the elevation of fake local 'degrees' above proper degrees from other places the only evidence of Oxford asserting itself. 'MA Status' also entitled you to wear proper dress for formal dinners and other official occasions (i.e. an Oxford MA gown and hood - top right).

Each year, those of us blessed with 'MA Satus' would also get a luxurious-looking invitation, edged in gold leaf, to Encaenia (the honorary degree ceremony), followed by tea and strawberries on the Vice-Chancellor's college lawn.

At the bottom there was another invitation inviting you to turn over the page - where there was a reassuring message that, if my memory serves me correctly, went as follows:

'Graduates of universities other than Oxford and Cambridge may like to know that, on this occasion, they are permitted to wear the academic robes of their originating institutions.'

A: Robes by Essex man

So one year, mainly for my own amusement and education (as I'd never seen them before then), I went to the expense of hiring Essex PhD robes (above left) - designed in the 1960s by Hardy Amies, a local Essex boy who'd become dress-designer to the Queen.

That, you might think, should impress the locals with a real touch of class - except that I'm pretty sure it didn't...


Anonymous said...

Oxford isn't the only University to do this sort of thing. When my alma mater, Newcastle University, received its Royal Charter in 1963 the Act of Parliament forbad its BA graduates from wearing mortar boards. This was supposedly instigated by Durham University. I have to wear my London MA gown to don (pardon the pun) a mortar board.

Nick Bryars said...

That previous comment wasn't intended to be anonymous. I pressed the wrong button. My name is Nick Bryars.

Sui Juris said...

Nick is quite right. A Durham graduate myself, it was common in my time for undergraduates to wear mortar boards, while graduates merely carried them, having been sternly warned never to wear them again.

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Anonymous said...

This country is stuffed. Obviously these people don't realise it's damn hard work getting an MA and a PhD by actually studying for them. Maybe they should take a trip to France, Germany, Japan, China, India, etc. to see some real 21st century development and progress. That will ruin their tea and crumpets. Although I guess these rituals and traditions are all very good for our tourist industry, and we'll really NEED that very shortly, when there is no other industry/enterprise going.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous on 28th November is incorrect. Nowhere in any of the statues or regulations of either Durham or Newcastle universities has there *ever* been a restriction on the wearing of mortar-board caps.

It is a myth that has persisted and gets retold at graduation ceremonies but there is no truth in it at all.

Jon Murray said...

You may believe it to be a myth - but I have just read this information at the following Newcastle University web page (http://www.ncl.ac.uk/congregations/ceremonies/gownhire/)

"Please note that most academic dress at Newcastle University does not include a mortar board. However, if you wish to wear a mortar board whilst you are having your official photographs taken, the photographers will be able to provide you with one".

If there was no restriction on wearing mortar boards, then why is it not included in the academic dress code?

CareerChanger said...

Cambridge is the same. I applied online to rent my academic dress for graduation, including mortar board. When I turned up to pick the AD up, I was informed that it was forbidden to wear the mortar board, and that they would not refund the rental charge......

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