Undercover Laurie: Cap and gown, check. Wallet, check

August 13, 2004

In the first of a series in which Laurie Taylor goes undercover at university events, he gatecrashes a degree ceremony and leaves with empty pockets.

"Is this the queue for the 12.15?" Reading University is conferring degrees on about 1,000 students today and that means that ceremonies in the Great Hall come and go with rather greater regard for punctuality than the express trains to Paddington. It would all be more relaxed if the parents and grandparents waiting for the next session knew that they were certain of a seat when the big moment arrived. But their yellow tickets to the event flatly declare that possession does not guarantee a seat and that means that most of them have decided to play it safe by joining the queue a good 30 minutes before the doors open. It's a cool windy morning and the mood isn't much enhanced by rumours that there's a separate queue round the other side of the hall.

But at least we are all standing in part of what the prospectus refers to as "a parkland campus generally acknowledged to be one of the most attractive in the country". Even on this dullish day, that seems a reasonable claim. The cloistered walkways, low red-brick buildings and flowering borders provide a lovely setting for the tents and marquees that have sprung up around them like morning mushrooms. "It's nice, isn't it," says the mother in front of me to her bored teenager. "Do you want to take a picture of it?" "Not now," her daughter says. Time enough for all that sloppy business, the expression on her face says.

The doors ahead are flung open and we're directed in single file to our seats. It's then that the amateur photographers get to work, standing up and establishing the precise alignment for their camera so that they can leap up at the right ceremonial moment to film their favoured graduate. A voice of God boomingly tells us to switch off our mobiles and warns that no photography is permitted from the aisle. That's the cue for C. R. Wilson MA DPhil to start up Bach's Fantasia in G Minor on the Great Hall organ.

Everyone listens with the reverence customarily accorded to the organ and, after the last flourish dies away, the end of the row gets its first sighting of the procession. We all stand as the members of academic staff, wardens of halls, professores emeriti, the director of finance, the vice-chancellor, the mace and mace carrier, and then finally the chancellor walk to the stage and take their places. The chancellor, Lord Carrington - yes, the Lord Carrington who sorted out Rhodesia and resigned over the Falklands - takes his seat centre stage. He nods. Be seated. We obey.

There's just time to count the number of people on stage while some of them are still shuffling around trying to find their orders of service or tuck their gowns around their thighs. Fifty-four altogether. Only eight women.

But then this is a congregation devoted to science. And now we're off. The dean of the faculty of science, D. A. Rice rises and reads the official formula: "My lord and chancellor I present to you the following candidates for the degree of doctor of philosophy." Over to Lord Carrington. "I admit each of you to the degree of doctor of philosophy of this university." And up comes the alphabetical leader of the PhDs, Radwan Abdulaziz Al-Rasheed, to shake the chancellor's hand.

Already one thing is clear. Every amateur photographer in the hall is going to be profoundly disappointed. The graduands approach the platform by walking down the central aisle of the hall and then ascending three steps to greet the chancellor. After the handshake they turn immediately left and disappear. The only person who can capture their face when they shake hands is the professional photographer with his key position stage right. It looks as though business at the Ede and Ravenscroft portrait stall is going to be brisk.

This part of the ceremony is excellently stage-managed. Professor Rice has obviously spent time studying his long list of names and making sure he's syllable perfect even on such potential hazards as Keltumetse Floridah Monaka and Shakila Sathiananthan. And Lord Carrington cannot be faulted.

His smile for each candidate may be identical, but it looks sincere as does his handshake and his muttered "Well done". The vice-chancellor, Professor Gordon Marshall, also contrives to look interested throughout the ceremony, even if his eyeline suggests he wishes he were in the strawberry tent. The parents in my row generously applaud every candidate but up on stage there are a dozen or so academics who can't even bring themselves to clap their own graduands. Two have their eyes closed.

There is, though, a little frisson of interest as one of their own number rises to do his bit. Geoffrey Mitchell, professor of polymer physics, is introducing today's honorary graduate, Gerhard Materlik, a specialist in synchrotron radiation from the nearby Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory. He begins well by drawing the audience's attention to the way in which we could all be aware of the phenomenon of synchrotron radiation when we gaze up at the night sky. But the rest of the speech relies too much upon a mere listing of Professor Materlik's achievements and prizes to keep the attention of everyone in my row. I've more or less written this off as par for the course when the honorary graduate turns after receiving his his award and gives us all a beaming smile. He's warmly applauded for what must be the first direct appreciation of our presence.

It is then time for the address by the chancellor. Lord Carrington has a nice sardonic tone and gets a few laughs for his rather old anecdotes about the misuses of English by politicians, spin-doctors and social workers.

(There's the one about the MP from Blackpool who talked of the town's special needs due to "its 180 degree periphery". "He meant it was on the sea," Carrington tells us). But the look on the vice-chancellor's face suggests he's heard it all ten times before and it does seem slightly odd to be listening to a sermon on the merits of plain English addressed to an audience of pure scientists. There is a perfunctory reference to parents, but no time is spent on the sacrifices they must have made or the cost they have incurred in getting their offspring through university. In fact there is almost nothing in the entire ceremony that takes the sensibilities or interests of the audience into account. They are merely expected to be passive observers of the great and good going about their academic business.

No such reticence is observable outside where the commercial side of the day's operation is in full swing. Ede and Ravenscroft, not satisfied with making a killing on gown hire, are busy flogging every sort of photograph with the vulgar logo "You've Earned It - Frame It". It is a costly injunction to follow. Even the "Standard Pack" of one full-face print comes in at £35 while the "Canvas Pack", which includes poses with parents and others, will set you back £135. Rather more reticent memories are promised by the stall flogging commemorative jewellery. A woman's gold seal ring bearing the university shield is going for £261, while the engraved silver cufflinks are a snip at £64. But that is only the beginning. Parents are also being persuaded to cough up for a degree tube (£9.50), a Reading wall shield (£20) and even a graduation bear (£9.50). If you have any loose change left after that, you can also invest in a graduation T-shirt that lists the names of every one of the 965 students who've graduated today, a Reading umbrella (£20), and a Reading silk tie (£20). After all that, my packed plastic plated lunch of smoked salmon, chicken breast and profiterole for £8.50, together with a pint of Guinness for £2.50, seems a positive bargain.

This particular Reading ceremony strikes me as efficient but soulless. The setting is beautiful, but no one has tried to improve at all on what nature and good architecture have already bestowed. Nobody in the ceremony made any mention of the university or its distinctive character or achievements. No one seems to have given any real thought to the possible interests or concerns of the parents and partners who have turned up for the occasion. They are simply congregation fodder. But no doubt most of the punters will go away satisfied. This, they probably think to themselves, is the nature of academia. Some find their own way to create a little private enjoyment. When I leave, I am gratified to see the bored teenager I spotted earlier behind the bushes near the information desk sharing a whole pint glass of champagne with her newly graduated big brother.

Next week: how does Brighton University's degree ceremony rate?

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