Why We Should Save Subfusc in Oxford

20/05/2015 11:23 BST | Updated 19/05/2016 10:59 BST

By the time this article is published, Oxford University Student Union will be in the midst of a referendum on whether to lobby the University to end compulsory wearing of our distinctive academic dress (subfusc). Here are my thoughts on why it should remain compulsory.

To deal with the most disingenuous arguments on the other side first: the idea that this is simply making subfusc optional rather than a de facto abolition is to miss the point somewhat. The idea that people would simply continue wearing it if they felt it appropriate seems somewhat fantastical when we consider how out of place said people would ultimately look in a room full of those not wearing it, and the likelihood of social pressure to reject subfusc given that it had now officially been rejected by the student body. More to the point, even if it did survive in the current body of students, there is little reason to believe that it would not simply whither and die in a few years as those with memory of the tradition disappear. Then we have the idea that what we should really do is produce a new 'uniform', a view which seems almost comical firstly when we consider that we already have one. Secondly, the wearing of subfusc with a neck tie (as is now allowed) seems strikingly similar to the school uniforms that proliferate all levels of schooling in the UK, and there seems very little objection to the idea that making school children wear suits and ties (as subfusc can now be worn) is associated with an elite.

Moving on to the positive case for keeping it, the first thing that must be said is that it is a leveller: when we come into exams wearing subfusc, we come in as equals, having all been through exactly the same exacting admissions process and heavy workload, and members of one of the best universities in the world - people who have all been admitted on our own merit. Therefore, I would argue that subfusc is not a symbol of an over-privileged elite, but of academic excellence and a common identity as Oxford students of which we should all be proud. And as for the only difference between students - namely, the wearing of scholar's gowns symbolising academic achievement - I will simply comment that there remains nothing wrong with celebrating academic achievement, even in such a high octane group of students.

However, subfusc should surely be valued more than for its levelling effect as we enter the exam room. Firstly, far from fostering 'community division' between locals and students and encouraging an attitude of self-superiority - an argument ultimately predicated on homogenising and appropriating the voice of the town - it fosters an attitude of community spirit, as everyone knows what is going on when they see someone wearing it with a carnation; it was the little things like a nod or a smile from someone you don't necessarily know but who knows what you're going through when they see you that certainly helped lift my spirit at times during my first exams, and this sense of community would suffer if we abolished it.

Moreover, it represents something deeper than any of its practical effects, namely Oxford's uniqueness and tradition that we should be at loathe to throw away. There seems a relentless push by certain sections of the student body and the media at large to characterise our traditions as embarrassing simply because the rest of the country's universities do not have such traditions, a state of affairs which should not be surprising when we consider how nearly every university in the country is significantly younger than Oxford. More insidiously, the argument often runs that these traditions are 'inaccessible', with very little evidence to back up this assertion. As a first-generation student entitled to a bursary, I am sick of my voice being appropriated and added to a cacophony of anti-traditionalist sentiment on these issues. I am in fact very proud of Oxford's traditions, and would go as far as to say that there is no reason to believe that this is a minority view. On the more general point, it is surely more reasonable today to conceptualise such traditions as part of Oxford's appeal to people of all backgrounds. Far from being an inaccessible embarrassment, our traditions are a window to Oxford's rich history and place in worldwide academia; as close to glimpse into the Harry Potter world which captures the imagination of millions as still exists; and a source of fascination and wonder rather than an 'inaccessible' symptom of elitism.

To conclude, as the opposition campaign does, I will discuss what message this sends to the media. Far from sending a message that we 'take access seriously' - a message surely shown by Oxford's unparalleled access work and financial support structures, and likely underreported precisely because good news does not sell and its opposite fuels wide and regrettable confirmation biases - it sends a message that we would rather Oxford 'modernised' and became any other university, bereft from its traditions and uniqueness which are part of its appeal. It sends a message that we care more about posturing to fringe media outlets that see our very existence as an embarrassment, rather than taking pride in our achievements. It sends a message that we care more about a misguided idea of 'equality' dovetailed to outmoded ideas of 'the elite' than the actual egalitarianism of a leveller. These are messages which we should not be sending to the country, nor indeed to ourselves.