Prof Lesley Smith on why Oxford needs to rid itself of daft traditions

My father-in-law spent most of his working life in museums. He always says that the daftest label he ever came across said simply, "Aquamanile. Romanesque. Mosan". Daft because those are three words that most of the population don’t know, and daft because, if you do know them, you probably also know, without looking at the label, that this is an aquamanile, from the Romanesque period, likely made in the region of the Moselle. So for those who don’t already know, the label is useless; for those who do, it only serves to make them feel smug.

I thought of this last week when I found myself writing the words "proctors demitting oration" on a piece of paper.

Wow, get me, I thought; I know what that means. It still amazes me that I’m part of Oxford University, but those three little words point out how far from most of the rest of the world what goes on in the university often appears to be.

And in some ways, of course, that’s exactly as it should be. Oxford aims to be a world-beating centre of excellence, just as I wouldn’t expect to understand everything an aeroplane engineer says, or a surgeon in theatre, then it’s reasonable for the university to have its own vocabulary.

The point at issue isn’t the arcane words and customs, but what they’re for. If they’re just a shorthand that makes no difference to the rest of the world, then okay. But if they’re designed to keep outsiders at arm’s length, I think we need to look at them again. For me, a classic example of this is sub-fusc.

That’s the black-and-white get-up you see university people wandering around in, often with gowns and mortar boards. There’ll be a lot of it about very soon, because all students have to take exams dressed like that. No reason for it; just what we do.

Cambridge abolished it ages ago and it doesn’t seem to have stopped their students doing well.

Personally, I really dislike it, and I wish we’d get rid of it too. Exams are stressful enough without having to dress up specially for them.

There’s also a hierarchy of gowns (of course there is...) designed to impress. "Those men", one of my women students said to me recently, "in their suits and their scholar’s gowns. I already feel second rate...".

And of course, sub-fusc marks out the students from the rest of us – the gown from the town. And it seems to excuse any behaviour you might get up to when you wear it. Covered in beans and shaving foam and spraying Champagne? Poor chap, just done an exam. Street covered in a sticky mess and metal confetti? Oh, they’re de-stressing after finals. To me, it brings the university into disrepute. But we could calm things down by not marking out the examinees in black-and-white.

I took the tube to my exams in London, and watching everyone else’s day going on around me helped put them into perspective.

Exams are just part of life. Do them in your most comfortable clothes; and when you’re done, don’t leave the streets a stinking mess for other people to clear up. Let’s stop using tradition to excuse behaviour we’d not put up with outside a George Street pub.

Let’s do away with sub-fusc.

Prof Lesley Smith is a Professor of Medieval Intellectual History and Fellow in Politics and Senior Tutor at Harris Manchester College, Oxford