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Graduation – the most wonderful time of the year

Here's to you, Mrs Robinson! Registrarism reflects on the ups, downs, and quirks of graduation, perhaps the only time of the year when everyone in a university is (or at least appears) happy.
This article is more than 4 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Graduation is always one of the most significant events in the university calendar. It is a quite bizarre and rather ritualistic event. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) dresses up, in gowns and/or posh frocks or newly acquired suits (or, better still, kilts). I’ve written here before how the graduation mood reminds me of the feel-good London 2012 Olympic summer.

Whilst there is something to be said for the total experience of the US style commencement, I do think the UK model is hard to beat in its mixture of pomp, flummery and joy. And it is quite a bizarre event when you think about it, with few parallels in public life where hundreds of people are the centre of attention, albeit only for a few moments each. Graduation days are just about the only days in the university calendar when everybody is happy, or at least the smallest number of people are gloomy.

Organising graduation ceremonies remains one of most thankless tasks in the administrator’s panoply of duties. Many aspects of your work are extremely visible (and permanently on record, available on DVD for a very reasonable price), you are dependent on lots of other people doing what you expect of them, and there are just dozens of things which can go wrong and over which you have little or no influence. Senior staff, whatever their role in the event, will always be extremely pleased to pass on some helpful bits of advice about where things went wrong or could have been improved.

Strange rituals

There are many rituals associated with graduations which are largely inexplicable to most participants. Some people do though need answers to the big questions about graduation as this FOI to the University of Sussex demonstrates:

Like Sussex, the University of Nottingham has a heavy and finely crafted mace. We also have Marshals of various kinds and levels of seniority and an Esquire Bedell (who looks after the mace). All of these people, despite their strange titles, are key to making the event happen and to ensure that students actually make it to the front, across the stage and back to their seats without mishap.

Gowning up

Graduation academic dress requirements are stipulated in university regulations and are fundamental elements of any ceremony. Until recently, the gown companies, of which there are only a handful in the UK, had really got this market literally and metaphorically sewn up. However, there are new, disruptive, kids on the block now such as this outfit, who are aiming to sell cheaply and directly to graduands, missing out the officially sanctioned middle person.

Good luck to them you might think. However, matching the right gown style and particularly hood colour and design is no small ask, and it is likely the effect of ‘that looks near enough’ will mean much more variety at ceremonies. But how long can it be before universities start auditing academic dress and then barring graduands with incorrectly coloured hoods?

Beyond the gowns there can be some interesting dress issues for graduands and, despite the very sound advice issued to all about the inadvisability of trying out stilettoes for the first time, many people do. Despite lots of inappropriate footwear – from flip flops to biker boots – people rarely fall over or off the stage.

However some graduation clothing advice from a Belgian university is perhaps the least helpful and most inappropriate. According to THE the university said that “from an aesthetic point of view” it would be “preferable for the women to wear a dress or a skirt and a nice low neckline”. Male graduates, it said, could wear a suit. Oh dear.

Keep your eyes on the platform party

Things to be aware of:

  • Some members of the platform party seem to find it challenging to stay awake for an hour on a stage. Even when you are clapping a lot (or pretending to clap because you have sore hands from excessive clapping in the previous ceremony), sometimes the eyelids droop.
  • Drinking at lunchtime is generally not conducive to effective working, including at graduation. Just because you only have to walk and clap doesn’t mean you can drink with impunity.
  • Phone use, including catching up on email, is not permitted. Especially if you are in the front row (A member of the platform party at one ceremony I attended could be seen from one angle to be playing on their iPad behind their speech-notes folder. Ed.)
  • Sleeping on stage is still frowned upon at most institutions.
  • And if you ask students not to take selfies while crossing the stage, then it is probably not a great idea for members of the platform party to do so.
  • Every university has some really oddly titled courses and we all appear, judging by the small number of graduands on some programmes, to have many more uneconomic courses than we thought. These are not things to raise with members of faculty during the procession.

Honorary graduates

Many ceremonies include also include the joys of an honorary graduate to make everyone feel special. Sometimes you get a celebrity, sometimes a comedian but more often than not it is an academic who has done marvellous work over an entire working lifetime but who nobody has ever heard of. Or, if you are really lucky, you might get a music star like one of these I wrote about recently.

Graduation Fails

Things do sometimes go wrong at graduation too. As I’ve reported here before both typos on degree certificates and doomed attempts at backflips on stage can really make ceremonies stick in the memory for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps the most poignant (or most humiliating, depending on your perspective) example of this was a recent example at Aberdeen University of a student who arranged everything to enable him to propose to a fellow student as part of the ceremony.

Unfortunately, as this report confirms, things didn’t go quite to plan

A very public marriage proposal at Aberdeen University’s graduation ceremony backfired yesterday after the would-be bride left distinctly unimpressed.

The student, who graduated with an MA in economics and finance, was left stunned after her boyfriend interrupted proceedings by leaping onto the stage with a bouquet of red roses.

To gasps from the assembled guests at Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Hall, he then got down on bended knee to ask for her hand in marriage.

He is then seen putting the ring on the wrong hand and attempting to kiss her – but she turns her cheek away from him.

Uh oh.

The best graduation myth

Every year there is a story in the media about a university banning the throwing of mortar boards for health and safety reasons. This makes the Health and Safety Executive very cross indeed:

Geoff Cox, who heads the Health and Safety Executive public sector team, said: “You’d think universities would study history and do a bit of research before repeating tired health and safety myths like this one. The banning of mortar board tossing on supposed ‘health and safety’ grounds is one of our most popular myths and actually appears in our Top 10 all-time worst health and safety excuses.

“As far back as 2008, HSE made clear the law does not stop graduates having fun and celebrating their success in the time-honoured fashion. The chance of being injured by a flying mortar board is incredibly small and it’s over-the-top to impose an outright ban. We usually find the concern is actually about the hats being returned in good condition.”

This story from 2016 at UEA also includes the timeless phrase “health and safety gone mad”.

Forward not back

Graduation is still a major rite of passage. It remains one of the most wonderful events in the university calendar and, for all concerned it is generally a positive and forward looking event. Everyone is thinking about future work or study or other plans but also with fond reflection of their time at university. There is an over-riding sense of optimism even in the most difficult economic circumstances. It’s a bit like having the Olympics in your patch every year.

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