Degrees of change

I AM not normally someone who has to think too much, about where I stand on things. Most subjects, most of the time, I can come up with a pretty clear idea of what I think.

I AM not normally someone who has to think too much, about where I stand on things.

Most subjects, most of the time, I can come up with a pretty clear idea of what I think. But I am having a bit of trouble getting my head around the traditions that most universities have and how useful or relevant they are to University Campus Suffolk.

This has all been set off by a trip north to see the eldest daughter graduate at a redbrick university. Having organised lots of graduation ceremonies in my time I was prepared for the event and knew pretty much what to expect. Tradition - and lots of it. With robes, gowns, mortar boards, old fashioned titles (pro-chancellors, public orators, deans and so on). There was lots of civic pride too - lord mayors with their marshals and attendants, a good turn out from the C of E, all joining in a long academic and civic procession through the hall. All the great and the good in their finery sat on stage as the students - normal, balanced ordinary kids - also got dressed up in gowns with furry hoods and mortar board and trooped across the stage to receive their hard earned degrees. So I reflected, is this really the image we want of our universities in the modern age?

I am fond of keeping our good traditions but I do like things updated where we can. We can't always preserve things for ever, completely untouched. And when we do, they can become faintly ridiculous (think Trooping the Colour or the opening of Parliament) and make us appear absurd in clinging to the past so carefully in every detail.

So far as universities go, here are some things I hate.

Take the Boat Race for example. For lots of people their only knowledge of the whole university system is the wretched annual non-event, between two lots of virtually professional rowers held near neither university, and always between the same two teams. It's like only allowing the FA Cup Final to be played by Corinthian Casuals and Accrington Stanley! And if it isn't the Boat Race (why the capitals - are there no other boat races?) it's University Challenge. I know it is only a quiz show but it implies that the thing that matters most at the very top end of education is how many facts you can remember. Not what you can do with them or whether they are useful to you or anyone else or whether they help you get a job. No, it's just about the number of things you can remember.

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Language is important - and here there are lots of things to get me cross. I really dislike the term “dons” to talk about university teachers. They are just teachers. Bright yes, enormously brilliant - occasionally - but ordinary men and women in a normal teacher student relationship, not dons. Nor do they work at a “varsity”- this phrase was obsolete by the time of the First World War - except in the bizarre world of most newspapers (thanks Evening Star for never using it).

When students arrive at uni they “matriculate” when they leave they become “alumni” and join “convocation”. Sometimes they don't just go to university apparently they “go up” until the end of term when they “go down”. It is all nonsense. But it isn't harmless nonsense - it implies a club, a closed society and if you don't understand the words and the rules you feel an outsider and that university is not for you - and before long there are plenty of bright kids who could be and should be at university who are not - and that's a waste.

So I am a modernist mainly. And as a consequence would sweep away the old fashioned rituals of degree ceremonies right? Well, wrong. Ritual helps celebrate significant achievement. Being part of something that everyone takes seriously and that has dignity and tradition makes everyone realise the importance and significance of the achievement. And for most students there and for their parents it is not just the end of the student years but of 16 or 17 years of formal education and the ceremony underlines that and acts as a point of change to move on into the real world.

Soon we will be choosing the colours of our own caps and gowns. These could last as the symbol of Suffolk's university for hundreds of years - so I hope that decision is a good one!

University Campus Suffolk will have traditional degree ceremonies which will be enjoyed by generations of successful students and their proud and relieved parents. But having spent many a hot July day in such ceremonies, weighed down by a heavy gown and listening (it happens) to a dull and overlong speech with the whole audience fanning themselves with their programmes, I know there was a recent change last week that improved the whole thing a great deal - air conditioning!

It doesn't do to follow all the old ways too closely; the modern world can play a key part too.

So we will keep the best of the old ways, introduce some new ideas then refine, improve and update to make sure our ceremonies and traditions are the best we can make them.

N

Do you think universities are too steeped in tradition, or stuck in the past? Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email eveningstarletters'eveningstar.co.uk.

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