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

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By Anna Lukina on

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.

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