Merton gown survey sparks debate

A recent survey on gowns policy in Merton College, sent by the JCR president, has caused online debate. 

The anonymous survey, which was presented to JCR members as a method through which the JCR committee could be aware of JCR opinions when “reviewing the policy”, asked students whether they had already sat their Prelims and whether they would describe the current gown policy as “fair” or “unfair”.


Currently, students at Merton are required to wear their gown for formals and various other college events, including the famous Time Ceremony. However, in practice, at least at formals, this rule is very loosely enforced: many Merton students turn up to formal without a gown and are not sent away or asked where it is. Moreover, there is no requirement for those who achieved a first in Prelims must wear a scholar’s gown and indeed some who were given a first make the decision to keep their commoners gown. 


However, many students at Merton do wear scholar’s gowns; Merton is a college that performs strongly academically, with over a third of all students achieving a first in their Prelims and over half achieving a first in their finals in 2022, so scholar’s gowns are a common sight. It has been noted in the past that these gowns serve as a very visible symbol of the academic pressure that students at Merton can find themselves under. 


The survey sent out addressed this: questions asked about the effect of the current policy on students’ mental health, daily college life and the academic culture at Merton. At the end of the survey there was also a question about whether a policy in which gowns become optional would be preferable.


It was this question that has caused much of the controversy. Within a few days of the survey being sent out, Oxfesses began appearing accusing the JCR committee in increasingly vitriolic language of attempting to ban scholar’s gowns or even gowns completely. One post on the popular Facebook page read, “See the sad, bitter weirdos at Merton trying to get everyone stripped of gowns…actually embarrassing”.


This sparked a number of posts for several weeks on the site arguing for both sides of the supposed debate. Yet as the Merton JCR President made clear when asked for comment,

“banning gowns at college events is not something being considered by the JCR”. He points out that the intention of the survey was simply to get a, “stronger appreciation for [Merton JCR members] views on the college’s current gowns policy”.


For many Merton students, this debate has simply demonstrated the problem with platforms like Oxfess where rumours can circulate and grow unchecked. At a Merton JCR OGM last weekend, two students submitted and got passed ‘The Oxfess Losers Motion’, which noted amongst other things that, “posting on Oxfess rather than communicating with the JCR over an issue you care about is the action of a coward”. This seems to be the prevailing attitude amongst Merton students, who are in large part shocked that a relatively innocent survey has been dragged so far out of context. 


Disclaimer: the author is a Merton JCR committee member

Image credits: Skittledog

Image description: Formal brunch at Brasenose