October 2015

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Graduation is an annual coming of ag e ceremon y, traditionally the end of “the apprenticeship,” and its elaborate rituals are riveting for all their attention to reproducing every detail of centuries of academic celebrations. While many admire the processions and solemnity of the occasions, the meanings of the rituals and symbols remain a little obscure. Serah Acham explains some of them and their origins.

Each year, students around the world don the ceremonial “cap and gown” and prepare to cross the proverbial stage to receive their diplomas, a ritual that signifies the end of one phase of their lives and the beginning of another. However, its significance stretches to a much broader scale since, for the university the ceremony also symbolises its role in the progress of a nation—both good reasons for the pomp and circumstance that surround the occasion.

Yet, many of us take part, whether as performer or member of the audience, without knowing where these rituals began or why they are still such important components of contemporary proceedings.

The graduation ceremony is one that is steeped in tradition. Every element, from the term “commencement” used to describe the event, to the regalia that the major players wear, finds its roots deeply embedded in history.

Although the word “commencement” implies beginning, it is also the word used to describe the celebration of the end of a student’s academic career, or at least one stage of it. Why such contradiction? The reason can be found in the 11th and 12th century medieval universities of Paris and Bologna. These universities were guilds where students (called apprentices) learned skills from masters of certain crafts. At the end of the period of study, the apprentice earned a “testimonial of skill,” today known as the “degree,” gaining him admission into the guild as a new master of his craft. Immediately after receiving his testimonial, he was expected to begin teaching. Hence, the commencement ceremony celebrated the apprentice’s induction into the profession—the beginning of his life as a member of the guild.

The Procession
Every commencement ceremony begins and ends with a procession. This ritual was derived from the clerical processions of the Roman Catholic Church and many of its symbolic elements are still incorporated into graduations today. The stately music that provides the background for the entrance of the marchers, for instance, is one such element. It lends a dignified tone to the occasion and its rhythm sets the pace for the marchers, allowing the audience time to savour the grandeur of the occasion and contemplate its meaning.

Traditional formations have also been preserved. The ranks of two seen at UWI graduations are part of that solemn, time-honoured walk. The academic procession enters first, headed by the university marshals and then the graduands. A fanfare follows,heralding the entrance of the chancellor’s procession. The mace is carried by the mace bearer at the end, entering directly before the chancellor, who comes in last.

The Mace
The mace is an integral part of the commencement ceremony. It is a heavily ornamented metal or wooden staff which symbolises the university’s authority—the internal authority of the university’s governing body over its members and the university’s sovereignty from external authority. Whenever this authority is exercised, such as in the conferring of degrees to its students, the mace must be present.

It, too, was adapted into the ceremony from old French and English traditions where the ceremonial mace was carried by the King’s bodyguard, used as a weapon to protect him.

By the 14th century, however, its practical use began to be phased out as it became more ornate. Encased in jewels and precious metals, the mace grew to be a more decorative piece, gaining symbolic importance.

The traditional dress for graduands consists of three elements: the gown, hood and mortarboard.

The custom of the graduation gown began in the 12th century, when the everyday attire at institutions of learning consisted of a long gown or robe, covered by a full-length cloak with a cowl (the hood of today’s graduation garb). This remained the fashion until the 15th century when tight breeches, capes and plumed hats became the style.

By the year 1600, the gown as a part of regular academic garb was almost completely phased out, being worn only by religious, legal and academic staff. However, because during medieval times most scholarsbelonged to a religious order, graduates of these institutions continued to wear the gown. The tradition has since been retained, as graduands continue to wear the gown during the commencement ceremony.

The colour of The UWI’s gown is blue, with doctoral students wearing scarlet, and while most universities today allow much flexibility in what their graduands wear under their gowns, UWI’s protocol mandates that graduating women wear white dresses or suits and men wear dark coloured lounge suits. At The UWI, as with most other universities, gowns for the various degree levels differ slightly in length and shape, with the more advanced degrees having slightly longer sleeves and more elaborate gowns.

The hood, a part of the original academic costume of the 12th century, was initially meant as a head cover for the monks who wore them. Today, however, it has evolved into the most descriptive piece of the graduation attire. Its length and colours of the lining and binding indicate the wearer’s school, degree and field of study.

The UWI’s hood is blue (with the exception of Doctor of Medicine and PhD candidates) and most are bound with red, while the colour of the lining depends on the faculty and type of degree conferred.

Though most universities have the graduands wear their hoods with their gowns throughout the graduation ceremony, traditionally the hoods were presented after they received their degrees. A special Hooding Ceremony was held for the presentation of hoods to Master’s and PhD degree holders. This custom is still preserved by some universities, while others have abandoned it due to the large volume of students that they may have to accommodate. At The UWI, there is no special ceremony. All graduands don their hoods before the commencement and must wear it throughout.

The Mortarboard
The mortarboard completes the ensemble. Casually referred to as the “cap,” it has long been a part of graduation regalia. Though no one knows where or when the tradition originated, there are many theories.

Employing the term “mortarboard” to describe this headgear is a relatively recent development, dating only as far as the mid-19th century. It is thought to have come about due to its resemblance to the literal mortarboard: a wooden plate with a handle underneath, used by bricklayers to carry small amounts of mortar.

The use of the mortarboard can be traced back as early as 16th century Europe, when members of academic institutions wore distinctive hats to show their rank in the world of academia. Members of the clergy and scholars wore birettas, which were similar in appearance to the square cap of graduates today. Their students wore a round pileus rotundus, akin to a beret fashioned with a “stalk” or “tab” in the centre. It is believed that the modern mortarboard design began in the early 1500s, at the University of Paris, when graduates merged the two hats, creating a square pileus.

Its design continued to be altered and in the 1600s it became a skull cap, topped with a soft, flat, square cap. By the 1700s, the mortarboard began to take shape as the soft cap was replaced with a flat, stiff square that sat atop the skull cap. The tassel was added a century later.

Traditionally, the mortarboard was reserved for those receiving a Master’s degree, since during medieval times this was the highest degree awarded. While today, most academic institutions have adopted it in the dress for graduands of all degrees, The UWI remains true to its roots, only awarding the privilege of wearing the mortarboard to recipients of its highest degree: the PhD.

Additionally, universities typically stress that it is imperative for the mortarboard to be worn correctly— fitting snugly on the head, with the flat top parallel to the ground.

Honorary Degrees
The honorary degree is the most prestigious form of recognition to be given by higher education institutions. The university waives its usual requirements— matriculation, years of study and research, residence and passing of examinations—expected of regular students, and selects candidates via a nomination process.

Recipients of an honorary degree are typically individuals of renowned reputations, either nationally or internationally, such as leading scholars, discoverers, inventors, authors, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, social activists and political leaders.

Occasionally, it may be reserved for an individual who has greatly affected the university itself, either through board membership, volunteerism or making major monetary contributions.

The recipient also need not have any prior connection to the presenting university. Rather, purpose of the honorary degree is for the institution to establish ties with a prominent person and to honour the individual’s contribution to a specific field.

The lining colours which respond to each degree type are as follows (the binding is red unless indicated otherwise):


  • Bachelor of Science in Agriculture - Avocado Green
  • Bachelor of Arts - Plumbago Blue
  • Bachelor of Education - White
  • Bachelor of Science in Engineering - Aluminium Grey
  • Bachelor of Laws - Black
  • Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery, Doctor of Dental Suirgery and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine - Purple
  • Bachelor of Science (The Natural Sciences) - Alamanda Yellow
  • Bachelor of Science (Nursing) - Purple, and top edge bound with Blue and White
  • Bachelor of Science (Pharmacy, BB Medical Science,B Medical Science, Physical Therapy) - Purple,with the bottom curve of the purple enhanced by a panel opf gold
  • Bachelor of Science (Social Sciences) - Orange
  • Bachelors: Interdisciplinary Programmes - Ecru


  • Master of Science in Agriculture and Master of Philosophy - Avocado Green
  • Master of Science and Master of Philosophy (The Social Sciences) - Orange
  • Master of Arts and Master of Philosophy (in Humanities) - Plumbago Blue
  • Master of Education and Master of Philosophy (In Education) - White
  • Master of Science and Master of Philosophy (In Engineering) - Aluminium Grey
  • Master of Laws - Black
  • Master of Science and Master of Philosophy (The Natural Sciences) - Alamanda Yellow
  • Doctor of Medicine (Dm) - Hood: Red and lined with Purple (No Mortar Board).
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) – Hood: Black Panama fully lined with Red and Black Velvet Mortarboard with Black Tassel.