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The Oxford University gown debate, from a law student’s perspective

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Is wearing different gowns depending on your grades morally wrong?

At the University of Oxford, gowns aren’t just for graduation. Students are expected to wear the garment to exams and to formal dinners. Those who outperform their peers by obtaining scholarships or by scoring firsts in first year are able to wear distinguishable “scholars’ gowns”, which are longer and have sleeves. The moral implications of this have been thrust into the spotlight after a trio of Oxford students called the practice discriminatory and divisive. But law student Anna Lukina couldn’t disagree more. Here’s why.

My view on scholars’ gowns is simple: excellence should be rewarded, and tradition should be preserved.

I understand that some may be upset when they do not get necessary grades to gain the right to wear such a gown (due to factors often beyond their control), however, life is full of disappointment and 20-year-old students should not be coddled and protected from seeing their peers perform better. Moreover, stripping some students of hard-earned achievement (often against all odds) is insulting and can further damage these students, escalating their impostor syndrome.

Surprisingly, this simple view has caused much controversy and tension. As a law student and an aspiring academic, I am always willing to listen to the other side in the debate. However, I do not tolerate cheating or intimidation. In my view, the stance of some of the OUSU (our Students’ Union) representatives has been far from neutral, and they even used official accounts to promote an anti-scholars gowns view in the middle of what virtually was an advisory referendum.

Even though this consultation’s result is not mandatory and technically no rules were broken, I believe that these practices are far from being suitable for OUSU as an organisation democratically representing all students — of both pro and anti scholars’ gowns camps.

The result of the consultation was positive for my side of the debate (63% for keeping the gowns), and I hope that OUSU will respect this view of most students at its first council. Many arguments against scholars’ gowns were needlessly personal, and my side was accused of being selfish, uncaring, and even actively damaging for students’ welfare as well as repulsive to the majority of applicants. These allegations, however, remain unfounded and constitute, frankly, an intimidation tactic rather than a reasoned case. For instance, many, while claiming that seeing “better” gowns in exams demotivates students, rely solely on anecdotal evidence and ignore opposite experiences.

However, many of my opponents have been respectful and have provided me with more perspective — even though my overall opinion has not changed. When the result of a reform is changing the status quo, the effect of gowns should be worse than just mixed to justify putting the change forward: concerns of a small number of students, while valid, are not enough to scrap an established tradition.

Anna Lukina is a law student at the University of Oxford.

What do you think of Anna’s views? Why don’t you let our readers know by writing a response piece?

41 Comments

Anonymous

Whilst I don’t disagree with your position generally, Anna, especially in respect of rewarding success, you should be careful in one respect: The argument that “tradition should be preserved” (your words, not mine) was the same argument that was trotted out not so many years ago to argue that people like you and me should not be allowed to receive degrees from Oxford. The argument that something should be maintained simply because it is traditional is, on its own, flawed.

(60)(4)

Anonymous

Yep. If this article is intended to persuade, it fails. Two short paragraphs at the beginning explaining why she hold this view: it’s traditional, students should not be coddled. Then three paragraphs explaining that the other side have behaved badly – the SU picked a side in a referendum they were holding, some unnamed people have said it’s selfish to want to keep the gowns. Possibly she is right that people have behaved badly, but this isn’t relevant to the substantive issue. No attempt to address the main argument put forward by the other side – that the gowns have an effect on students’ exam performance. Surely this is the point that she needs to deal with.

(6)(2)

Anonymous

That is also a good point. My personal experience is that few judges are receptive to the argument: “I don’t have a particularly good case to advance, Sir, but look how beastly the other side have been to me and my client in this litigation!” There are plenty of times I have wanted that line of attack to work; and none where is has.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

How is this legal news?

(13)(3)

Anonymous

Because you’re not a real lawyer unless you went to Oxford

(8)(12)

Lord (scraping the barrel) Harley

I have a double PhD from Brooks College Oxford.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

The failure to address the case of Lord harley removes all authority from this article.

(3)(0)

Wendy

Lord Harley’s boba fides have not had to be adjusted.

He is candidate for election to the Opening Health Trust. His integrity will see him through.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

I hope anyone narcissistic enough to wear one of those gowns is ridiculed by their peers (well, that is if they even consider other students their peers!)

(2)(21)

Anonymous

They’re not – it’s very standard (especially given everyone looks ridiculous anyway in sub fusc).

(10)(0)

Anonymous

I’m all in favour of “differential” gowns!

Signed. A. Silk.

(17)(0)

Snowflake

Everyone should have the same gowns.. Plus, everyone should get a super special participation award for just being super duper excellent. When will the system stop violating my safe space..?!?

(21)(4)

Anonymous

The students have chosen to go to Oxford, one of the most traditional and elite universities in the world…and then complain about one of its traditions based on meritocracy? Follow the argument through and they should apologise to all those who did not get in to Oxford who must be far more “damaged”. They should move on and complain about things that matter.

(33)(1)

Anonymous

Why stop there? We need to remove the degree classification system since it’s discriminatory towards the less-skilled and the lazy. In fact, just remove all universities!

(23)(2)

Anonymous

Who cares?

(5)(0)

Russell de Groupe

All this sort of thing does is show that Oxford students may be bright but they are not ready for the real world if seeing someone being recognised for achievement causes them distress.

(9)(4)

Oxford lawyer

This isn’t Oxford students. It’s a small number of highly politicised students at the University’s student union, OUSU. Because of the college system, most students engage with their college student unions rather than the central university union. Some colleges have even disaffiliated themselves from OUSU, and many more would do the same if it didn’t result in the loss of free sexual health and contraceptive supplied that OUSU provides.

In short, you have a small number of students “representing” the whole uni, but in reality they speak for a tiny minority.

(10)(1)

Anonymous

“You have a small number of students “representing” the whole uni, but in reality they speak for a tiny minority”

That may well be the case. Indeed, as a former student union officer, I can confirm that it’s not a problem confined to Oxford. But at the end of the day, if they only represent a small minority, that’s because the majority fails / refuses to engage with the union. You can hardly blame the union for the laziness of the student cohort, and in my experience the folks that moan the loudest about how the union is failing are also the folks least likely to roll their sleeves up and have a go themselves.

(Re-reading that last sentence, the same could quite comfortably be said for real world politics.)

(1)(4)

Anonymous

This comment shows how unrepresentative Unions are, and how disinterested it’s members are to actually engage with wider, actually student opinion.

It is not the fault of the students for being disengaged – it is the fault of the Unions.

Trying to draw paralleles with real world politics as you have is also wrong. Do you really think governments have the attitude of “you can hardly blame the government for the laziness of the electorate”? You can most definitely blame governments for the lack of engagement of the public. If Unions indeed were in the real world they would see that they too are to blame for lack of engagement. Portraying minority opinions as the voice of the student body is just one failing most Unions have.

(4)(1)

Anonymous

So, let me get this clear, basically your argument is “I don’t engage because you don’t represent what I feel, but I’m not going to tell you what I feel and then blame you for not knowing.”

(0)(0)

Martin Yuille

We had this debate in 1968… maybe 1969… les evenements took some time to reach us in Oxford.

The key point is this. Tradition is a voluntary affair: if I want to go Morris dancing, it’s my choice. But if I am required to wear a gown – long or short – then that requirement has nothing to do with tradition.

It’s either a good rule or a bad rule. And rules are subject to democratic review at any time. In a democracy. Though perhaps not in a hidebound academic gerontocracy.

As for “long gowns good, short gowns bad”, this is all silly. I enjoyed flaunting my long one, just as David Cameron no doubt enjoyed flaunting his Pops waistcoat.

If you’ve got it, flaunt it… but only if you want to. The flauntee can decide whether the flaunter is crass, insensitive, arrogant or thick. I think those are the options.

(3)(1)

Anonymous

David Cameron was never in Pop…#justsaying

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Boris was though #floreat

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Fuck off Anna

(2)(1)

Lead Counsel for the Devil

I graduated Oxford law last year and witnessed plenty of the one-eyed anecdotal evidence used to try and remove the scholars’ gowns.

That said, the defenders of the gown are as guilty of rampant strawman-ing as those who wish to abolish the gown are guilty of intimidation tactics.

Clearly people accept meritocracy and they are not arguing 1sts should be abolished to avoid hurting the feelings of 2.i dirt trackers. The point is celebrating success has a time and a place and they’re arguing that time and place is not in an exam room full of extremely stressed and nervous people before your EU law final.

It’s like those people who post a full transcript of their A Level results on Facebook on results day to boast of their A*s while plenty of their classmates will be at home feeling pretty bad about missing out on the grades they wanted. Celebration of success is all well and good but there is a cost to intellectual willy-waving and not much benefit except ego massaging – something Oxford might benefit from less of.

Quipping ‘hurr durr lefty snowflakes wouldn’t last a minute in the real world’ is lazy.

(11)(0)

MC Associate

This is exactly right.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Why on earth should the students union be neutral? It’s entire purpose is as an advocacy or campaigning group. And suggesting that the union tweeting support of getting rid of scholar’s gowns constitutes “intimidation” or “cheating” is the kind of ethical infringement you could actually get into trouble for as a lawyer.

(1)(2)

Anonymous

*ITS. shame.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Your privilege should be rewarded with more privilege.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

I don’t really think this is an ideological issue but a factual one. If wearing different gowns has an effect on students’ performance, then it seems fairly clear that it is not a helpful practice. If it does not then it is harmless.

FWIW I believe that there is quite a lot of pedagogical literature on similar phenomena – e.g. I believe that telling people that they are in the top/bottom 10% by mathematical ability and then having them take a maths test has a measurable effect on their performance. So I think that the idea that differential gowns might have an effect on performance is not crazy, and fairly in line with the latest thinking in educational studies.

Perhaps the university should do away with gowns for a year or two and measure whether or not there is a difference in how students’ performance differs from their previous years performance. If there is a greater number of students who had previously got seconds getting firsts, and/or greater number of students who previously got firsts getting seconds, then it would appear that the gowns are indeed having an impact on performance and should be done away with.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

“Many arguments against scholars’ gowns were needlessly personal, and my side was accused of being selfish, uncaring, and even actively damaging for students’ welfare as well as repulsive to the majority of applicants. These allegations, however, remain unfounded and constitute, frankly, an intimidation tactic rather than a reasoned case. For instance, many, while claiming that seeing “better” gowns in exams demotivates students, rely solely on anecdotal evidence and ignore opposite experiences.”

– I don’t think that any of the allegations you have made are examples of attacks being ‘needlessly personal.’ A personal attack is one that attacks someone as an individual. If everyone holding a certain opinion is said to be selfish, this might be a crass attack, but it’s not a personal one.
– Surely both sides are making arguments that are “unfounded” in the sense that they are not backed up by evidence. You are making a basically ideological argument in favour of keeping things as they are. That’s legitimate, but it’s also “unfounded.”
– Similarly, any views on whether or not the gowns have a detrimental effect on performance are inevitably going to be anecdotal, because there is no non-anecdotal evidence available.

(0)(0)

Tim NicebutDim

Meritocracy is the key word here..

(2)(0)

newassociate

I read Law at Oxford and graduated in 2015. Full disclosure: due to the fact that I inexplicably got a distinction in Law Mods I was given a scholar’s gown.

To be clear, no one at Oxford (unless they are a complete bell-end) would ever remark or probably even notice that the sleeves of one gown are slightly shorter than the next. And, if you are the type of person who does care about such inconsequential things as gown sleeves, then you are probably a fairly insecure individual who is in fact upset at not getting a distinction, rather than at the aforementioned longer gown.

On a lighter note, there are far more consequential issues in this world than debating the merits of an academic gown awarded on merit. This topic is of absolutely zero importance to any normal human being. To the three students spearheading this campaign – you are hugely privileged to be studying at Oxford (many people would hack off their left arm to be in your position), please appreciate it, and cut back on the carping.

(9)(0)

Officious Bystander

> many people would hack off their left arm to be in your position
…in which case, it wouldn’t matter how long your sleeves were 🙂

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Of course, nonsense like this reinforces the widely (and correctly) held view that Oxford students, regardless of their “meritocratic” status, are all a bunch of jumped-up twats.

(2)(1)

Comfort King

So you do well and you wear the more uncomfortable long sleeves version? Bullshit, doesn’t exactly motivate people I imagine. Suit shorts in the office is the way forward

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Youave to wear gowns in exams!?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The article is priggish. Which undermines whatever argument it contains.

Still, no loss, since there’s no issue of any significance at all here.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Yes indeed, very priggish – and frankly Anna, you need to get a life. This really was not worth penning an article about.

(1)(0)

Tim NicebutDim

Whilst you’re out getting a life, please also learn how to construct a sentence.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

How has this got anything to do with law?

(0)(0)

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