Devils Advocate: Are Gowns elitist?

Scottish Government adviser Peter Scott recently provoked controversy when he suggested that the red gowns so central to his University's traditions were 'elitist'. Lewis Frain and Rhodri Lavan debate whether this is really the case.

1
Photo: Kylie Andrews

YES – Lewis Frain

I’ll start this by making a few things clear, I like the red gowns and I think they are one of the best of St Andrews’ traditions. My gown was passed on to me from my high school history teacher who herself inherited it from her sister and I feel proud to continue that tradition. There are countless other examples of people inheriting their gowns from friends or family members and even if a student buys their own gown, it acts as a unique symbol and continuation of the history of the University. I am not at all going to suggest that the University ditches this tradition but neither I think did Peter Scott, the government adviser who was quoted in The Times article on the subject. He said that the gowns and other traditions put off disadvantaged students from applying to St Andrews because they are elitist, this has caused some controversy amongst the student body and was refuted by the University itself. I think he had a point.

The red gowns are paraded across all the marketing for the University and adorn several souvenirs from the Union shop. When prospective students tour the University their guides wear gowns and describe the etiquette surrounding them, such as how they are worn differently depending on your year of study and their use at the pier walk every Sunday and at formal dinners. If my memory serves me correctly, this was the very first thing I was told about when I visited St Andrews on an open day. Further to this, the custom of avoiding the PH sign on North Street, the May Dip, Raisin Weekend and the Kate Kennedy Procession are all promoted as St Andrews’ traditions. They are all certainly quirky, unique to St Andrews and mostly harmless.

However, I think the University has to be honest in how it promotes these traditions as part of life in St Andrews. Whilst we all come into contact with all these traditions, how many can we actually consider to be intrinsically part of the student experience? I can only really see May Dip and Raisin as being applicable. Whilst most students have a gown, many do not and unless you are an ambassador or a member of the debating team you only wear it sparingly. Formal dinners may be frequent for some people but the majority of St Andreans find them few and far between, I haven’t worn my gown to a dinner since first year. Additionally, I imagine most students have done the pier walk at some point but it certainly isn’t a weekly commitment for the majority. Especially since it occurs after Sunday prayers, a practice not universally popular given the diversity of the student body. Like the gowns itself the pier walk is a nice tradition and there is little to criticise about it, but they are traditions that apply to a small amount of people. Despite this, the University presents and promotes them as fundamental parts of St Andrews student life.

The stereotypes and clichés about St Andrews are definitely off-putting to some people. Formal dinners, pier walks after prayers and not being allowed to step on a certain part of the pavement doesn’t appeal to everyone. There is no problem with this and there is no problem with finding it appealing either. Yet, there is a perception that St Andrews is a place that only suits the latter. Coming from a Scottish state school I know many people from differing backgrounds who would have loved it here but either chose to go elsewhere or didn’t even consider it, largely due to the stereotypes and the reliance on tradition. We all know this isn’t the case, people from any background or with any tastes can enjoy the student experience here and don’t feel held back by it. The problem is the University is unable to rid itself of the said stereotypes and I think the way the traditions are promoted is partly why.

St Andrews has an issue regarding the number of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Partly this is because of the expensive nature of the town and the lack of enough financial support, but largely this comes due to the fact that many students who are from working class or disadvantaged backgrounds don’t apply to St Andrews in the first place. As with people from all backgrounds, some may just prefer studying at a city university, the small town in Fife setting isn’t to everybody’s taste, but there is certainly still a problem here. The traditions may be quirky but they aren’t for everyone and they do come at a cost. The gowns cost £159 new and are around £90 second hand. Should we really be pressuring students into buying these expensive items when they are likely to only wear it a couple of times a year? Yes, they aren’t compulsory and the ambassadors do a great job of both promoting the traditions but also reassuring people that there is no problem with not conforming to them. However, there is clearly an expectation that students partake in a number of the traditions as they are promoted at every opportunity.

It is clear that some people, many from working class backgrounds, don’t find the traditions appealing or might even find them a little pompous. To an extent they promote the stereotypical view of St Andrews as an elitist institution. Of course we all know there is an element of this, but this could be changed by having more class diversity in the student body. If the University is serious about attracting more access students, and it seems like it is with increased bursaries and the ambassadors’ own scholarship for disadvantaged students, then I think it should address the concerns raised in this Times article rather than just dismiss them.

It is easy for some to say that if you don’t like the gowns or the traditions then you shouldn’t come to St Andrews. That seemed to be the consensus on The Times comment section anyway, but I feel that’s a poor attitude to have. We should want people to come to this University regardless of their background and shouldn’t exclude individuals who simply don’t find the traditions appealing. Nobody is coming to take the gowns away, they are a nice tradition and the images of students on the pier walk are deservedly iconic of St Andrews. But there is so much more to St Andrews than the gowns, Raisin and the other traditions. We live in a beautiful town, have great teaching, popular societies and sports clubs and have a unique small town community. That for me was enough to apply to St Andrews and that instead should be at the forefront of the University’s campaign to attract a diverse group of students.

NO – Rhodri Levan

As a student from a lower-class background, I have never particularly taken to any of the traditions that St Andrews offers. Of course, I have done May-Dip and taken part in raisin weekend, but I’ve never been on a pier walk, purchased a gown and I often even feel indifferent as to whether I stroll over the PH or not. This is not because I feel that I would be snubbed if I did try to take part in such traditions, for in fact I stay aloof from them mainly because I am quite a cynical person and find them an overbearing and nauseatingly welcoming social practice. Cynicism aside though, I do not think that the presence of red gowns and their historic place in the university is in any way elitist.

The main reason for this is because while it is easy to see them as a symbol of snobbishness and pompousness, they have now more or less lost the political and/or cultural meaning that people may be inclined to attach to them. Sure, they’re not cheap (you can however get them second-hand or even borrow them from a fellow student for a brief time). But with universities in general being increasingly open to working-class students, the fact that you choose to wear a gown or not does not matter in the wider context that we are all at the same university, getting the same teaching, the same accommodation and the same opportunities.

This brings me on to my next reason for dismissing their elitist connotations – the fact that for whatever they were associated with in the past, they now in fact have the very opposite meaning of exclusivity. The red gown acts as an identifier that all students regardless of background share in a common affiliation to the university and acts as an inclusivity device.

Though I do not regard the red gown as being particularly important to my life as a St Andrews student, I know many other students from disadvantaged background who feel that it helps them assimilate into university life. In this regard, it could be said that the red gown provides an easy way for working-class students to feel welcomed into the university, without having to feel like they have to act in a certain way to be understood by their fellow students. In other words, it provides a common bond.

In response to the accusation from Sir Peter Scott, an independent Scottish government adviser, that red-gowns put off working-class students I reiterate a university spokesman’s response that; “the red wool gown is particularly popular among our access students, many of whom wear it as ambassadors for our widening participation programmes” as evidence that the red gown serves a very different function to what people can be inclined to associate it with.

Surely the bigger issues when it comes to access for working-class students is the price of fees for tuition and maintenance, the notoriously excessive cost of accommodation in St Andrews itself, and the lack of funding for university mental health services which are so vital to students who have not had any exposure to university life before. These are the real reasons that disadvantaged students do not apply to university. In a sense, it is somewhat patronising to think that the only reason that students from challenging backgrounds, would be put off applying to St Andrews is because of red gowns, when there are a whole host of issues holding those students back.

I would however, possibly concede the point that the culture of red gowns to the perspective of those looking from the outside in, appears to represent a social divide between those who expect to get to university and those who hope to get to university. What I mean is that for the state school educated student, who maybe does not know anyone in their family who has been to university, or knows very little about university life in general, the sight of private school educated students wearing red gowns as signifiers of their privileged position can be off-putting.

The gown itself however, is innocuous. It is the culture of the private school vs. state school divide here that is the problem. As I have argued, when students from whatever background actually reach St Andrews, the red gown functions as social unifier rather than a divider.

A final point to reiterate then, is that St Andrews university is ultimately better off keeping their red gown traditions than discarding them in the hope that doing so will attract more disadvantaged students. What is important when it comes to appealing to working-class students is not that the university tries to hide its association with elitism, but that it actively engages in ensuring that there is a system in place to support disadvantaged students, while affording them the recognition that their place at this university is a special achievement which can be honoured by wearing their red gown.

 

1 COMMENT

  1. This whole arguments is condescending. Oh those sad poor people must not be able to handle the sight of a red gown or god forbid get one themselves. The problem with St Andrews access is you people actively treat to treat us differently. You act like we can’t handle the sight of rich kids being rich. Stop treating us like sick puppies please. Thanks.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.