Oxford traders are gown but not out

January 17, 2003

Oxford University has changed its rules for voting at the forthcoming election for chancellor. It has done away with the requirement to pay for an MA, and it is likely to end the requirement that gowns be worn to vote. The news has come as a blow to suppliers of gowns.

In the last election, about 8,300 MAs turned up, hired a gown and voted. "We charged the gowns out at half price," said Adrian Palfreyman, managing director of Shephard and Woodward in Oxford. "We were looking to do something similar this time."

The university changed the rules governing membership of Convocation - the body that exists solely to elect the chancellor and, strangely, the professor of poetry - just three months before the death of Lord Jenkins of Hillhead left the post vacant.

The change, which was recommended in the 1997 North report, means that Convocation membership has been extended to all former students of the university - and not just to those who chose to buy their MAs.

A spokesperson for the university said: "The rules were changed to simplify the previous regulations and to open up membership for those holding the BA who did not choose to proceed to the MA."

The spokesperson also said that a recommendation to change the requirement on gowns was likely to become policy. But gown suppliers are not too despondent. Mr Palfreyman said: "It is true that for the past ten years students have not had to wear gowns in tutorials and seminars. But on the whole, the gown is surviving. Students enjoy the sense of tradition."

He said that the shop was acutely aware of the cost of gowns in these days of student poverty. "A gown costs £24.99 to buy and £6 to hire each time. We do a thriving trade in secondhand gowns to help students.

"This form of academic dress has been with us for 600 years," he added. "It originated from monk's clothing and was a form of medieval power dressing. We have a bible of gowns in the office and make gowns for universities all over the world."

The most elaborate and expensive gown is that awarded to doctors of music - it can cost more than £500.

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