Why should the price of belonging be £159?

Issue 222's editorial discusses the debate of protecting student interests on gowns, and why the University, Churchill Gowns, and the Students' Association can't have their cake and eat it, too.

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First of all, it seems appropriate to begin our first Editorial of the new semester with a big welcome to students – both those coming to St Andrews for the first time and those returning. We thoroughly hope you enjoy the forthcoming year in this quaint little seaside town.

One tradition that makes this place so special is the adorning of the red gown, which is the subject of this week’s front page story.

We do understand that the gown is one of the strongest images associated with this university, and that the University needs to retain the prestige of the gown and ensure that the quality of gowns is sufficient.

That said, it must be questioned why the University felt the need to try and put a company out of business for trying to offer students an alternative.

We all know students at this university, or any university for that matter, who could not justify the expense of £159 for something they may only wear a handful of times whilst they are here.

Second-hand gowns are available, and these are favourably priced, but it is very much a case of first come, first served, and from our experience these sales are poorly advertised.

Furthermore, the University’s stance has come off as somewhat abrasive. Statements issued have given the impression that the University places a lesser value on students who have opted to purchase the cheaper gown because they have not joined “the community”.

This is ludicrous, as by-and-large an image of a student wearing the cheaper of the two gowns would go overlooked, even in a University prospectus.

Being part of this family, as the new Students’ Association President Paloma Paige implied, is incredibly important, and students should not feel left out because the gowns are well out of their price range or because they have tried to get a gown from a supplier that offers a similar product for a more affordable price.

Ms Paige also said, in her statement to The Saint, “The cost is high, but it is important to note that the Shop does not charge nearly as much as it could for such a product.”

We think this view is insensitive – how much does she think the Shop could charge for these gowns? Minimum wage for an 18-year-old stands at £5.90. The price of the University gown equates to a week’s work before the 18-year-old has fed, clothed and housed themselves. Could Ms Paige look a struggling student in the eye, and inform them that they had secured a bargain at £159?

As fourth-year students, we already look back on our time here with fondness, and we don’t want to see any students miss out on feeling part of this unique community in any way.

As such, we would like to make some recommendations for the future of the gowns in St Andrews.

Firstly, it goes without saying that the gowns should be cheaper. Not only is £159 extortionate, especially when compared with other universities, but there is no clarification as to why they are so expensive.

Protecting the Shop’s interests are important, but surely students should know where vast sums of their student finance are actually going. If that money is going to research and development, transparency needs to be improved.

Likewise, if gowns are available to rent in halls of residence, this should be made more obvious. If it is not already universally applicable, perhaps it is a system that Ms Paige should look at instituting during her tenure as President.

On a similar note, more should be done to ensure there is a bigger supply of second-hand gowns available to students. There are difficulties there, but perhaps more could be done to advertise buy-back options for graduating students.

Finally, the other company needs to be addressed. Some of the information on their website could be described as misleading, and the University’s reputation needs to be protected.

As you will see from our piece though, the difference between the gowns is not substantial enough to warrant the University’s reaction. Indeed, a mere statement that they were not the ones endorsed by the University would have sufficed, allowing students to make their own decisions as to which gown they buy.

The experience at this University is made that much more special because of the choices available to every single one of us. Taking part in a university tradition in a way that is most appropriate to you should also be one of those choices.

Maintaining a monopoly that is already alienating many students will not foster any greater sense of family or community, no matter what anybody says.

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