Saturday, 19 June 2010

New Graduates - Our main 'output'

People often ask me, 'what do universities produce?' This time of year is the best for answering such questions, since in many of our towns and cities our principal 'output' is highly visible. It takes the form of our numerous new graduates, usually begowned in styles that correspond to their university and to the degree they are receiving, and usually accompanied by doting parents, other relatives and friends. For, of course, producing graduates is our main function, and it is both traditional and appropriate to mark the graduation with proper ceremony and pride.

At degree ceremonies, the Vice-Chancellor (or Principal, in Scotland) heads an academic procession into the hall, everyone formally dressed and very colourful. Then after a short introduction, the degrees are awarded. The main challenge at this stage is reading the graduands' names - representing dozens of countries - correctly, and it is usually a Head of School or Dean who gets the short straw. Each new graduand shakes hands with the Principal and then receives his/her certificate which states the subject and class of degree. As part of the ceremony an honorary degree or two is usually presented, these going to a wide range of people eminent in their respective fields. One of the senior academic staff is generally invited to present the hororary graduand by making a short speech about his/her life and accomplishments - this is something I have done on occasion when there has been a graduand in one of my areas of interest. At the end of the degree ceremony, the Principal also generally delivers a speech, a mix of thanking various people (including the graduates' families), congratulating the new graduates (and encouraging them to keep in touch), and sometimes commenting on current government policy towards the universities.

Graduation is typically followed by a reception and, weather permitting, strawberries and cream in an attractive part of the campus. All very British! But this part of the occasion also gives the academic and other staff chance to meet some of our students' parents and other family members, which is nice; and lots of terrible photos are taken, which is OK but less nice.

In most universities these days, degree ceremonies are conducted wholly in English. But when my son graduated from Cambridge a couple of years ago I was amused to discover that everything was still conducted in Latin, as it had been when I graduated there. Actually, not quite everything, as there was one short announcement in English at the start, namely, 'would everyone please ensure that their mobile phones are switched off.' Perhaps there isn't a Latin word for 'mobile phone' - I wonder. Otherwise, the procedure wasn't very different from most other universities.

Once our new graduates have their degrees, it is commonly assumed that universities pretty much shut down for the summer, as if all the academics are then free to enjoy a three month holiday in the sun. Sadly, this has never been the case despite widespread and popular misconceptions to the contrary. For in the summer we generally get busy with the other main part of our academic 'output', namely research. And if we're not doing that we're preparing new courses, updating old ones, and doing all the administrative work needed to prepare for the next academic year. All in all, I've rarely experienced a period in my academic life when there was any shortage of things to be done.

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