Why do graduation ceremonies have to be so boring?

Graduation days are students’ days. Why can’t they be all-singing and all-dancing, asks James Derounian

October 27, 2021
A graduate takes a snooze during his graduation ceremony as a metaphor for Pomp and monotony: why are graduation ceremonies so boring?
Source: Getty

As a graduate, parent and university staff member, I have attended more than my fair share of UK graduation ceremonies.

The high point would be my own graduation, way back in 1979, from the University of London’s now-defunct Wye agricultural college, located in the Kent village of that name. Held in a countryside marquee on one of those golden summer days in the Garden of England, the relatively small number of new graduates – plus their proud parents – were treated to a comparatively brief and engaging ceremony, topped off with strawberries and cream for all. But my subsequent experience of such events has been, to put it kindly, mixed.

The gowned, mortar-boarded graduand stands up as their name is read out, walks to the stage, shakes hands with a worthy, acknowledges the applause from their family and then sits down again: this formula has remained fundamentally unchanged for generations.

Moreover, its strictures are enforced. Take the University of Reading’s regulations. Graduands are “required to wear academic dress (cap, hood, gown), which you should have hired or bought…Graduation is a formal event….[men] should wear smart clothing beneath your gown. If you are to wear a shirt, then a tie must also be worn.” And in the final analysis, “we reserve the right to prevent you from joining the procession and graduating on the day if you are not dressed appropriately in smart clothes. You would, in that case, graduate in absence.”

The trouble is that, in the 21st century, all this dull formality has become outdated and tedious, even as the attendance fees for friends and family have crept relentlessly up (reaching £32 per adult and £16 per child in one institution I am aware of). Overall, I can get more enjoyment for similar money attending a match at my local football club, Cheltenham Town – and even if the replica shirt costs as much as hiring a gown, at least it is optional and can be worn more than once.

What should be, above all, a celebration tends towards an ordeal to be endured. Hundreds of names called out one by one, maybe a bit of singing, lots of clapping and (if you are lucky) a “motivational” pep talk from a celeb: this is not exactly excellent world-class entertainment.

To be fair, there are some chinks of light. I’ve seen Floella Benjamin, Exeter’s former chancellor and a bastion of children’s television, hug graduates instead of shaking their hands, which generated real warmth and human connection. On another memorable occasion, I heard the recipient of an honorary title speak of her experience as a concentration camp survivor and her subsequent educational work fostering tolerance of difference. And in terms of inspiration and entertainment, try listening to musician and comedian Tim Minchin speaking at a 2013 graduation at the University of Western Australia.

By contrast, a particular low point for me was at a Scottish university where, pre-proceedings, the audience was put through the pain of trying to learn an arcane, dirgeful and difficult university hymn; the results were somewhat less than uplifting. At a different, large university, we waited for an hour or so to see our beloved – a mere distant speck – cross the stage, followed by another hour of everyone else’s beloveds doing the same.

If you doubt the representativeness of my experience, let’s hear what students on social network The Student Room have to say. “Most Graduation Ceremonies are very long, very tedious and as boring as bat-poo,” says one. “It isn’t like watching some West End show or the opening ceremony at the Olympics.” Another “had the WORST speaker in the history of the world. This dude was more interested in giving the technical specs for some new way to harness…energy that his company came up with than giving the graduates any advice. What a bore fest.”

The situation isn’t any better in other countries. In 2015, the online American women’s magazine Bustle published a humorous list of ways to “Fend Off Boredom During Your Grad Ceremony”. Suggestions included mentally ranking “all the movie and TV graduation scenes, from best to worst”.

In a digital and multimedia age, in which Covid is enforcing innovation in all sorts of other areas, why aren’t the National Union of Students and students’ unions talking with higher education institutions to agree on something much more engaging? Graduation days are students’ days, after all. Why can’t they be all-singing and all-dancing?

Why not ditch the bat-capes and encourage graduands to dress to express? Sports students could dress in their kits, for instance. Why not have images projected electronically? Art schools could present graduand artworks and installations as they received their awards. What about piping music, poems and creative writing from graduating students through the auditorium before and after the ceremony? What about an immersive theatrical experience, with hand-shaking taking place where students are, rather than expecting each individual to approach a celeb/vice-chancellor? I also like the idea of sub-rooms and subgroups where graduands could congregate with their friends and family and enjoy an experience more closely linked to their own subject or degree.

But whatever the precise configurations, it is clear that graduation ceremonies must move with the times. Universities should recognise the sacrifices of students and their families by giving them a free day out to remember – for all the right reasons.

James Derounian is a UK National Teaching Fellow and a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.

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Print headline: Pomp and monotony: why are graduation ceremonies so boring?

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Reader's comments (6)

My children graduated from three different universities c20 years ago. My recollection is that each ceremony was about an hour and enjoyed by child and parents alike. I am sorry to hear there are students/parents/staff having a less good experience now. That said, I think it unreasonable after the money spent up to that point by student (and parent) that there should be a charge. Not convinced by the thought of Civil Engineers graduating in hard hats, hi-viz jackets and safety boots! It is a formal occasion and I sense most students like that but again I do not see why they should be charged for gown hire.
At my university the graduation ceremony itself is not the main event, the students like to dress up and reconnect with their uni friends. Its obvious that Mum and Dad have been talked into buying them a new outfit which can be subsequently used at the disco or party. Its the selfies and the Instagram that matter.
Picking up on a couple points mentioned in the article. Graduations do not need to be boring and many are not. It’s up to the university to set the tone they choose and sometimes they get it wrong by choosing the wrong speakers who are dull, boring and non engaging. Gowns and mortar boards are time honoured traditions. They add a certain historical formality and finality to a journey of higher education. Not everything needs to be modernized. It’s like asking judges to cast aside their robes and wigs when they go to court and just turn up in smart casual attire. I have graduated from universities in both the US and UK and must say I was dumbfounded to find out my family members had to pay to attend graduation. Graduations and their associated costs should be borne by the university. It just looks cheap. Families and students have spend a lot of money to attend university over the course of 3/4 years, the least a University could do is bear the cost themselves, it’s matter of principle. Where I disagree though with the author is likening the cost of attending the graduation ceremony being better spent and more enjoyable at a football game. That’s ridiculous. You can go to a football game anytime you like, you cannot always go to a graduation ceremony especially your own. I lost the opportunity to attend my graduation ceremony due to Covid restrictions. It was cancelled. I will never get that back again. I will never get my 30 seconds of joy to walk across that stage to receive my diploma with my family in attendance, nor celebrate the end of my journey and the hard work and effort put forth to attain that degree.
My father was once asked to speak at a graduation. He opened his speech with "I am sure that many of you are sitting there thinking you could probably do a far better job of giving a speech than some boring old fuddy-duddy" and then went on to prove that he wasn't a boring old fuddy-duddy! There's the importance of tradition, too. "Bat-cloaks" have a long history behind them & the idea of a rite of passege from student to graduate is an important one. It's a chance for parents to be proud, for students to celebrate their accomplishments.... and whilst, if you're a footie fan, you might find attending a match more enjoyable it is not such a momentous occasion, there will be other matches. Each student only gets their degree once. Give me a graduation any day :)
What a poorly timed, badly themed article. Graduates and their loved ones are desperate to have a decent in-person graduation ceremony. Graduates want to wear academic dress. Overwhelmingly they love the pageantry and processions so do parents and grandparents. This is just sour grapes when we all want something sparkling.
I completely agree with the article, the ceremonies are tedious in the extreme. I can't imagine being asked to pay to attend any other event which would be as dull. Time to move on and do something different.

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