The end of sub fusc? OUSU proposes referendum on future of gown and mortar board

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OUSU Vice President for Access and Admissions, James Blythe, has proposed a student referendum on the future of sub fusc in university examinations.

The University is likely to review its position on the traditional gown and mortar-board clothing in coming months.

Blythe’s motion will be brought to next week’s OUSU Council meeting, and, if passed, students will be given an opportunity to reject the traditional clothing in a university-wide referendum.

Whilst generally popular among Oxford students, sub fusc has come under fire in recent years for presenting an “elitist” image of Oxford, and potentially discouraging students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds to apply. OUSU held a similar referendum in 2006, with 81 per cent of students voting to keep sub fusc.

Blythe told The Oxford Student that he did not have a strong personal view on sub fusc, but believed that OUSU should “represent accurately the student view”. He commented: “The student view on this issue, set nearly ten years ago by a referendum, is taken very seriously by the University and I believe only a referendum should change that view.

“I myself can see both positives and negatives of sub fusc and don’t intend to lead either campaign. I hope many people will come forward to articulate the passionate views on both sides of this debate that I have heard from students. I have certainly not proposed this referendum because I want to abolish it, but just so that OUSU can represent accurately the student view.”

Student ‘trashing’, which refers to the practice of throwing flour and champagne over sub fusc-clad students to mark the end of examinations, regularly attracts negative national publicity, with student’s gowns and mortar boards frequently used to portray Oxford as a ‘posh’ and elitist university.

It is not yet clear whether Blythe’s envisioned referendum would propose the abolition of Sub Fusc, or merely seek to make the dress optional.

Students showed divided opinions on the matter. A second-year humanities student heavily involved in university access and outreach initiatives described sub fusc as: “sickeningly socially elitist” and “the very worst of Oxford”.

The student, who wished not to be named, commented: “Sub fusc represents everything that is stuffy, outdated, and sickeningly elitist about Oxford. Coming from a state school pretty removed from the world of public schools and formal halls, the sight of students covering each other in flour and champagne while dressed in gowns and bow ties very nearly put me off applying. The abolition of sub fusc would benefit the university and the country, and would constitute an important step in broadening Oxford’s social diversity.”

Christ Church student Daniel Freeman, a senior member of the University’s Conservative Association, defended sub fusc, commenting: “In the dozens of tours, open days, and talks I’ve done on behalf of access I’ve found very little evidence for this belief that things like sub fusc really put people off applying. In many cases it is the charm of these customs that make people consider Oxford in the first place.”

He continued: “[Sub fusc] is, to say the very least, a bizarre place to start when issues such as the cost of living in Oxford seem to be a far bigger factor in turning away potential applicants than having to wear a gown and a white bow tie or ribbon two or three times in your time here.”

Freeman went on to express fear that a “drive to make Oxford more and more a carbon copy of more modern universities will make [Oxford University] less appealing to the best candidates, not more.”

Students at Cambridge University are not required to wear gowns during university examinations, making Oxford one of the few universities in the world that retains the tradition.

In 2012, the University altered sub fusc regulations to remove gender restrictions, a move described by the LGBTQ Society as a “welcome change” that will “greatly improve the experience of transgender students.”