One of Britain’s most prestigious universities has been gripped by a row over whether its graduation gowns are a form of discrimination.
A group of students at Oxford University have demanded that long-sleeved robes, worn by high-flying students to exams and graduation as a sign of their success, are banned on the grounds that they make others feel “inferior”.
While most students wear short-sleeved gowns, the prestigious “scholars’ gowns” mark out students who have been awarded scholarships or performed particularly well in first year exams.
“The hierarchical gown structure is fundamentally in conflict with ideals of community and equality,” outraged students wrote in the campus paper ’Cherwell’.
According to the group, the gowns not only make some students feel “nervous” about their perceived “academic inferiority”, but highlight the university’s gender bias, with more scholars’ gowns awarded to men, especially in STEM subjects.
“I already feel inferior being a girl here, let alone a woman of colour, and to just be reminded of every alienating feeling while standing in the tent is the most disheartening thing before an exam,” one student said.
But others say the proposal to bin the historic robes “reeks of envy”, rather than any “real desire for reform”.
Arguing that students can earn a scholars’ gown at numerous points during their degrees, undergraduate Thomas Munro said the university is only required to ensure equality of opportunity, not “equality of outcome”.
“Scholars’ gowns are a symbol of this meritocracy, which despite some failings, nevertheless succeeds to a great extent in rewarding achievement,” he wrote.
An argument on the student union website added: “As one of the top academic institutions in the country, Oxford students should pride themselves on their academic ability.
“Scholars’ gowns are symbols of this prestige, and are indicative of a student’s hard work and academic excellence. Such qualities should be rewarded.”
Many students appeared to agree, with more than 2,000 last week voting down a motion for the student union to oppose the robes, compared to around 1,200 people who were in favour.
However, the issue has yet to be put to bed, with the SU council set to cast the final vote about the gowns in October.
The debate follows a divisive row at the university two years ago over whether traditional gowns should be worn to exams, with students eventually voting in favour of keeping the robes.
Oxford University has yet to respond to HuffPost UK’s request for comment.