Their finery hour

July 21, 1995

Graduation ceremonies have never been more popular. Leala Padmanabhan finds out why.

This is the time of year when the British indulge their taste for ceremony. Donning their best suits and unfeasible hats, thousands of proud parents will watch their offspring sweep across platforms and through streets, looking like bats in their black gowns. It is the crowning moment of their formative days at university - the graduation ceremony.

"Even those who scorn it still turn up and have a good time," says Brenda McClean, communications assistant for Manchester Metropolitan University, where, from this week, 9,000 students are receiving awards in 17 grandiose ceremonies.

Graduation ceremonies are big business these days, because of the recent rise both in student numbers and in those choosing to attend. And the pomp and ceremony attached to the occasion is by no means confined to Oxbridge and the red-brick universities. Even the newest universities go in for the show.

As the occasion has got bigger, it has also become glitzier and more celebrity-orientated. No ceremony, it seems, is complete without a high profile figure receiving an honorary degree. Betty Boothroyd, in particular, has been in big demand.

Cambridge University's external relations officer, Geoff Skelsey, who organised two days of ceremonies catering for a record 3,300 students and around 12,000 guests, admits that the rite of passage is being Americanised: "The whole American obsession with marking every step of the educational ladder with symbolic handshakes and yearbooks is rubbing off here. Thirty or 40 years ago, hardly anyone went. But then hardly anyone went to university in those days. Now, going is not such a big deal, but getting out is. It's just hugely popular these days."

Graduates at this year's ceremony, held as usual in the 18th-century Senate House, are automatically photographed as they kneel down before or shake hands with the vice chancellor. As they leave, they are presented with their certificate and a graduation yearbook, a "handsome volume", according to Mr Skelsey, which contains details of the year's crop of students, giving each a special mention.

"Of course we capitalise on Cambridge's history and tradition but that's the appeal of the occasion," he explained. "It would be stupid to pretend that the place hadn't been around for centuries. It's E. M. Forster and all that. People want to feel part of the Merchant Ivory image. You couldn't graduate by Internet. It would be ludicrous," he added.

For Open University graduates, family participation in the ceremony is all-important, and can embrace three generations. Annette Mathias, press officer for the OU, says demand for places at the 23 ceremonies held from March onwards in 13 regional centres throughout the country, is getting bigger every year. "What strikes me about the Open University is how proud the families are. Most OU graduates are mature students and often it's the husband, wife or children who attend or sometimes even elderly parents or grandchildren."

Doug Jordan, senior assistant registrar of the university, said provisions were made for as many people as possible to attend. "We make arrangements for people with wheelchairs and we have had degree conferrals around hospital beds. "We have had a man serving a life sentence attend a ceremony, with two prison guards watching him like hawks."

Not a single university, traditional or progressive, seems to send off certificates by post and have done with it. Despite the cost, the faff and the tedium, the degree ceremony is one of those institutions which is here to stay.

"It's a rite of passage," said Geoff Skelsey. "It marks the transition from being a student and pupil to being someone who is prepared to take on a job and play a full role in society."

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