Felt like an extra in a scene from Hogwarts on Saturday. Looking up from my top tier seat I could see naked cherubs swirling around the painted ceiling of Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Looking down, the scene was a sea of heads, fur trimmed gowns, mortar boards and silver maces. As the vice chancellor droned the Latin that admitted my daughter to her degree, I craned to photograph her amid a throng of new graduates, leaning over the balcony at a precarious angle that had the nearest usher, dressed all in black, sucking her teeth.
Later, at a fabulous three course lunch in a marquee in the grounds of her college, after a champagne reception in the quadrangle, I thought about how much had changed since I graduated, from the same college, more than two decades ago. The degree ceremony was the same, the pomp, the solemnity, the Latin, the fur trimmed robes. But, 25 years ago, we went for lunch to a restaurant in town. Of course we got squiffy, but not on university provided booze.
Graduation has become big business in the last decade. Universities charge their students – for the lunches (£35 a head last Saturday), for the robes (hired for the day), for the photos and the rooms. It’s the start of a pursuit of young graduates which will see the begging bowl held out throughout their lives by their colleges and which has netted some Oxford colleges millions of pounds in donations.
Of course some things don’t change. I loved my time at university and so did my daughter. It helped make me an independent and reasonably confident person, and the five years I spent there probably quadrupled my lifetime earning power. But I was struck by the remark of another guest at the lunch on Saturday – “Where,” he asked, “are the black and Asian faces? There are none in this marquee.” In fact there were, but amid the ranks of those serving the food rather than eating it. Having come from cosmopolitan London, where my other child is at university, the white middle class-ness of the college was noticeable.
So all in all, a day of mixed emotions – but the overwhelming one was nothing to do with Latin, or pomp, or fab food and fine wine. It was simply pride that my daughter had got her degree and made lots of friends and was happy and sociable and independent at the end of her four years. And for that I am truly thankful.