This article is more than 1 year old

Higher education postcard: solvitur ambulando

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag reminds us that student debt is not a new phenomenon
This article is more than 1 year old

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

It isn’t only the University of Cambridge that had idiosyncratic graduation traditions.

Whilst the Proctors’ Walk might sound like a painful medical condition, or a song from a musical, it in fact formed part of the University of Oxford graduation ceremony. The back of this postcard had a long explanatory note, edited from a longer piece in The Graphic of 22 October 1904. This, with its slightly leaden humour, deserves to be given an airing:

Solvitur ambulando

The scene is the hall of the old divinity schools. At one end are three imposing thrones, that in the centre raised above the other two. In these sit the vice chancellor (in the centre) and the proctors on either hand. At the opposite end are grouped the candidates marshalled by the Bedel of Arts.

Down either side are benches, the front row filled with Doctors and Masters of Arts, and other members of convocation in their various robes and hoods, and behind them a still gayer assemblage of ‘sisters and cousins and aunts.’ Of all the candidates for degrees, it is the would-be BAs that have the greatest claim upon the sympathy of the spectators. Here they are about to take their first serious step in academic honours, on the brink of the gulf which separates the graduate from the undergraduate. Therefore we will let the doctors and masters pass, and come to the lowest rank of the ladder. The proctors rise, and the junior reads out the names of those ‘qui gradum Baccalaurei in Artibus ambiunt’ [who pursue the degree of Bachelor of Arts]

Then takes place a quaint relic of ancient ceremonial. The two proctors, with the regularity of clockwork, remove and replace their caps, walk rapidly down the hall, stop, raise their caps again, turn, walk back, raise their caps for the third time, and sit down.

The meaning of this part of the proceedings is as follows – the proctors are collecting the votes of the members of convocation on the subject of the degree being conferred. Had a voter knowledge of any ‘just cause or impediment’ he would signify his objection by ‘plucking’ the proctor’s gown, and should this objection be valid, the erring candidate would not receive his degree. Thus in the old days, any tradesman who was a creditor for a large amount to any of the candidates would get a doctor or master to signify his dissent in the above manner.

But in these enlightened days undergraduates, of course, never run into debt, or otherwise misbehave themselves, and the privilege has not been exercised for many years.”

There’s a few things to unpack here.

Firstly, note that passing the examinations is not the final test for the degree: it is simply a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition. A candidate must also get through the congregation unscathed. This is a club, and its existing members can deny a candidate entry (remember a degree is a rank of membership, not a certificate of achievement).

Secondly, note that non-academic debt can be used as a reason to deny a candidate the award of a degree. This has not been permitted for some years now following the Competition and Markets Authority guidance to the higher education sector, and it has caught out a few UK universities. In practice this has been tricky since data protection legislation in the late 1990s – a candidate could make a subject access request and find out their marks, so much of the immediate pressure to clear debts was obviated.

The Proctors’ Walk, though, goes further. Debts from outside the university could be the cause of a candidate not gaining a degree. This looks like a gown concession to town to maintain what must at times have been an uneasy peace.

Thirdly, solvitur ambulando. This means “it is solved by walking” and is not part of the Latin at the ceremony itself. The phrase is attributed to Augustine of Hippo, one of the best-named saints, who may in turn have borrowed it from Diogenes of Sinope, the cynical philosopher.

And finally, let us note again that the card shows a strictly male affair (apart from the sisters and cousins and aunts, that is). Women were not permitted to graduate from the University of Oxford until 1920, which is barely 100 years ago. No amount of walking is on its own going to solve the systematic biases still built into higher education…

Leave a Reply