Why I... think that graduation ceremonies could do with some spicing up

August 20, 2004

Many people see the role of graduation ceremony organiser akin to that of Father Christmas - coming out to work one or two days a year, with the rest of the time spent reading the Racing Post and flicking bits of paper at elves, aka admissions office staff. If you were to suggest to Santa Claus that he had a gentle schedule, no doubt you would get an earful about incessant wrapping of presents, keeping the good children/naughty children database accurate and organising endless photoshoots for Christmas cards.

Likewise, the graduations ceremony organiser. No one else in academia has responsibility for ensuring that not only are all the staff, students and their families in the right place at the right time, but that they are also dressed smartly.

And what a surprise: everyone wants the Friday afternoon slot. Except the vice-chancellor, who wants to move all English students to another ceremony, as his old chum Sir Fuddyold Cashdonator's nephew is graduating and he can only make Thursday morning. And the pro vice-chancellor wants to see the physics students go through, but not on a Tuesday. The sensible answer is to hire a hall and a booze tent in a field, bung the chancellor in the hall and allow graduates to mosey up to shake his hand more or less at random while a bouncer reads out names.

In reality, the ceremony is a free-for-all for university factions trying to deplete any money that might be left in the pockets of parents. Here's the student union with its £14.99 T-shirts; there's the commercial wing bearing the university's logo: ties, paperweights, clocks, false moustaches, clockwork models of the chancellor. Any old tat.

When the day finally comes, the big surprise is the sudden appearance of large numbers of mysterious smartly dressed, shiny, beautiful young people clad in glorious finery. It's the student body, those who have spent the previous three years slobbing around in clothes that would embarrass the wino who lives in the bus station.

One problem for organisers these days is the number of family members each student brings along. In the good old late 1970s, the fashionable thing was not to attend, but simply hang around outside wearing long hair, flowery shirts and loon trousers, comforting sobbing parents. These days, people are living longer, and students feel obliged to include their grandparents.

Not only that, but as everyone is divorced and remarried, that's two sets of parents, and possibly eight sets of grandparents. And don't forget that mum and Dave and dad and Stephanie need to be put in separate parts of the hall, so they will never see each other. Eventually, each student will have to attend two ceremonies, one for each parent and their new partner. And when they themselves have children? It doesn't bear thinking about.

After this build-up, the ceremony is as dull as ditchwater. Academics process slowly to uninteresting music. While this might be acceptable for the ancient seats of learning, I feel the ceremonies should reflect the roots of their university. Those at 1960s institutions could dance naked, throwing flowers over the audience while an ageing hippy plays an acoustic guitar; those from 1980s universities could parade to dry ice, black leather and pounding dance music; and the 1990s brigade could wave share certificates to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory .

As it is, the audience is seated, the students play with their mortar boards and anxious parents set video cameras and pull tissues from handbags. Then an old man makes a tedious speech ("Well done, everyone") and another reads out the phone book as students stumble across the stage.

Eventually, everyone goes home, and I go to the pub.

The following Monday, the vice-chancellor sends an email suggesting changes for next year, and the whole shebang begins again.

Alastair Carr
Graduation ceremony organiser and administrative assistant
York University

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