Graduation through the ages
University graduation ceremonies are part of an 800-year tradition which stretches back to the establishment of the first universities in Europe in the 12th century, when Latin was the language of scholarship.
Origin of the word 'university'
A universitas was a guild or union of masters (MAs) who had a licence to teach. Both "degree" and "graduate" come from gradus, meaning "step"; the first step was admission to a bachelor’s degree, followed by the second masters step which won the graduate admission to the universitas.
Why gowns are worn
The University of Canterbury's foundation in 1873 owes much to the graduates of Oxford University's cathedral/college Christ Church and the Canterbury ceremonies reflect that tradition. The gowns and hoods which characterise academic dress have evolved from the daily dress of university staff in the Middle Ages, which was in turn based on the attire worn by medieval clergy. Nowadays the gown and the hood are strictly controlled and indicate the wearer’s university and degree.
The gowns for Canterbury graduates are the same as for Cambridge University graduates; the hoods are of a standard shape and size with a slate grey exterior. The colour of the lining indicates the degree of the wearer. The rich variety of academic dress worn by Canterbury staff reflects the many universities which they attended.
At each ceremony the procession of graduands and staff is led by the Esquire or Madam Bedel carrying the University mace, the symbol of institutional authority. Historically the Bedel had a number of functions but in a modern university only the ceremonial role at graduation survives. The University mace provides a tangible link with Christ Church, Oxford, where it was designed and made. The shaft of the mace is of oak from a beam removed from Big Tom Tower when the bell was rehung in 1953. Even in 1680, when the beam was installed in the Sir Christopher Wren-designed tower, the timber was described as ‘well-seasoned oak’. The mace has been used for every graduation ceremony since 1957.
Graduation at UC
The first Canterbury degrees were conferred in 1878 in the Canterbury Provincial Chambers with the ceremonies moving to the College Hall, now the Great Hall of the Arts Centre, after its completion in 1882.
The early graduation ceremonies, known as Diploma Days, were decorous affairs but by 1884 discordant notes were sounded in the form of ‘tootings on a very unmusical instrument’. A tradition of specially-composed songs developed, reaching its heyday in 1899.
After a break during the First World War, ceremonies resumed in the College Hall in 1921 but pressure of numbers forced a move in 1946 to the Civic Theatre, the first year in which an academic procession through the city was held. This format continued, apart from three occasions when it was held in the St James Theatre, until 1962 when further pressure of numbers prompted a move to King Edward Barracks.
In 1968 the ceremony was divided into two and in 1971 it was made voluntary. The Christchurch Town Hall became the venue in 1973, with a move to three ceremonies in 1987, four ceremonies in 1994 and to five ceremonies, four in autumn and one in summer, in 1997. Following the merger with the Christchurch College of Education on 1 January 2007, there are now eight ceremonies, including a ceremony held in Rotorua for College of Education students based in the North Island.
In April 2011, graduation celebrations were held in a marquee on Ilam fields. The Christchurch graduation ceremonies have been held in the Horncastle Arena (formerly CBS Canterbury Arena) since December 2011.