Oxford students to keep exam attire
Oxford University students have voted overwhelmingly against ending a centuries-old tradition of wearing gowns, suits and mortarboards to exams.
Some students had argued the formal black and white dress was "archaic", looked elitist and put pupils from state schools and poor backgrounds off from applying to the prestigious university.
But in a referendum held by Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), the student body voted overwhelmingly to keep the signature sartorial look for exams.
OUSU announced that 75.8% (6,403 students) voted to keep subfusc - the dark suits, shirts, bow ties and ribbons worn under a gown - compulsory. A total of 2,040 students - the equivalent of 24.2% - voted against.
And 78% (6,242 students) voted to keep the gown and mortarboard compulsory while 22% (1,759 students) voted against.
Students may have voted to keep the status quo but they made history as the referendum was the highest ever election turnout for a university student union in Britain, OUSU said.
James Blythe, OUSU's vice president for access and academic affairs, said he proposed the motion calling for subfusc to be scrapped after a group of examiners complained it was "uncomfortable, anachronistic and a general pain".
Subfusc is defined by the university as a dark suit with dark socks, dark skirt with black tights or stockings or dark trousers with dark socks, a dark coat if required, black shoes, plain white collared shirt or blouse, white bow tie, black bow tie, black full-length tie, or black ribbon.
Students wear a black gown on top and carry a mortarboard into exams with them.
Those who flout the strict dress code can be punished by the university.
In 2012 gender restrictions for subfusc were dropped so students are free to wear a black ribbon or bow tie, or suits or skirt, as they wish.
A university spokeswoman said: "While this vote has indicated that students feel no need to change university policy on the wearing of subfusc, gathering comprehensive views of students on university policies and procedures is an important part of OUSU's work representing student views to the university through its governing committees."
Harrison Edmonds, 19, who is a first year history student at University College, led the campaign to keep subfusc.
He said: "I'm absolutely delighted. I think it sends a positive message from the students in Oxford that subfusc isn't elitist but is egalitarian.
"No matter your background, your race, class, gender, when you go into exams wearing the gown you are equal.
"The message I get from people from under-privileged or poor backgrounds is that they feel that having the ability to wear their gown makes them feel the equal of Etonians or Harrovians, and that is something they don't want taken away from them."
Harrison said he received messages of support for the save subfusc campaign from as far afield as China and the United States.
But one message came from an unexpected source - a former student at Oxford's old rivals Cambridge University.
He said: "My favourite message of support was from an ex-Cambridge student. They had this referendum in the 1970s and they voted to get rid of it and he was warning us to keep it.
"It's a unique selling point for Oxford University."
Mr Blythe, who proposed the referendum but stayed neutral throughout the campaign, said the student vote had been "decisive".
And while some may see the vote as just a row over clothes, Mr Blythe said it highlighted issues concerning students, including access and gender performance in exams.
However, he admitted being "surprised" at how much attention the vote attracted in the media.
He said: "It seemed a bit excessive it was debated on Newsnight. But you only need to take one look at the make-up of our Cabinet to see Oxford does matter. But I would equally say I was surprised this debate got quite so much attention.
"I would hope that people will remember how much effort we put into ensuring that Oxford in 2015 is a really meritocratic university. The student body, the academic community and leadership are all extremely progressive.
"We are proud of our heritage and all that comes with it, but that doesn't hold people back from being committed to having a university open to all the brightest people who apply.
"I would rather we were known for the research we are doing trying to cure Ebola rather than what our students wear to exams."