Saturday, September 25, 2004

Sub-fusc sucks

It's the most important time of your life. Over the next two weeks, you are to take a series of exams that will ultimately judge how successful your time at university has been. The exam rooms are poorly ventilated as they are, and with it being the middle of summer you are finding the heat indoors somewhat uncomfortable. Of course, the problem isn't helped by the fact some arcane regulations make you wear a gown, jacket and bow-tie.

There is something uniquely Oxonian about the university's insistence on retaining sub-fusc academic dress for matriculation, but more particularly examinations. Claiming it is all part of the tradition of the university is fine, but tradition is not a justification for anything in itself. Just because something has been around for a long time does not mean that it serves any useful purpose. Indeed, in many cases, it is tradition that is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Sub-fusc should be done away with purely because any education system worth its salt should provide its students with the chance to perform to the best of their ability in exams. Forcing an uncomfortable dress code on them, at the most stressful period in their lives, does not serve any useful purpose. Thinking about it now, I can't actually think of any good reason as to why the university would want people to be wearing any sort of uniform in the examinations. The only effect it can have on results is injurious - if people worked best in those clothes, they would wear them in such situations anyway.

Yet there is a further reason as to why an outdated uniform should be scrapped. The New Labour government is intent on attacking the university system, and removing the independence of Oxbridge academics in the application process. Instead, they see the universities as ripe for an experiment in social engineering and as a means by which they can justify their failed education policies.

Oxford is singled out for particular targeted criticism. The misplaced attacks of Gordon Brown in the Laura Spence affair typify this best, but Charles Clarke has been on record as saying that "Oxford needs to shed its Brideshead image" (and his comments regarding mediaeval history can only have been directed as an attack on the top universities). All those at Oxford and have been fortunate enough to avoid close involvement with OUCA know that such allegations of the wrong kind of elitism are unfair - but Oxford does not help itself. Every time a newspaper carries a story regarding Oxford students, it is accompanied by a large picture of young people outside the Exam Schools wearing a uniform designed for the 19th Century.

What better way to send out an image that Oxford isn't a modern, forward thinking institution? That background and your school are more important than you and your academic potential. That rather than teaching in the most up-to-date manner, it is an institution hung up on class and obsequience. That if you are from a comprehensive you might as well not apply.

Of course, it's all complete rubbish. No don in his right mind would admit someone based on background rather than ability - after all, they have to teach them. The fact that your tutors are at the cutting edge of research in their fields is one of the reasons that the tutorial system is so stimulating. And once you arrive at Oxford, which school you went to really isn't an issue in the slightest. But paper sales increase on the back of negative stories; the government is more than willing to let them keep coming. So why do we assist these forces at their own game?