To view the gown as an access problem isn’t exactly missing the point: it’s much worse than that. To vilify the gown is to assign a scapegoat to the much broader problem of Cambridge’s misrepresentation in the media. The problem isn’t one tradition or another, but rather the way in which these traditions are harnessed to make Cambridge seem like an unattainable fantasy. The negative portrayal of Cambridge in newspapers, films, and literature – as a bastion of students from privileged backgrounds – is the real enemy of applicants, not the gowns themselves.
I agree with Elsa that ‘Cambridge’ as a concept should be much more about academic rigour than odd traditions. However, if we were to eliminate gowns in a misguided effort to make the University appear less elitist to potential applicants, the logical progression would be to crack down on other traditional quirks of the university, from its distinctive chapel choirs to its formal halls to its porters and porters’ lodges.
The key to improving access is not destroying everything that makes the university unique, as this would achieve nothing. Rather, access should be about showing applicants that while Cambridge may indeed be a place of fluttering gowns and fancy buildings, a Cambridge education is so much more than these frills: it is nothing less than the academic opportunity of a lifetime. Access should be a process of demonstrating that, despite the preconceptions applicants may possess, this opportunity is in reach, and that they should not be afraid of Cambridge’s reputation, but inspired.
Gowns have nothing to do with this process of opening up the University to a greater diversity of students. To blame gowns for the University’s elitist reputation is a dangerous fallacy that takes attention away from more pressing access issues, including but by no means limited to the underrepresentation of racial minorities on campus, the continuing issue of mental health that may dissuade potential applicants, and other problems that have a real effect on how many students from certain backgrounds apply.
Gowns are irrelevant to access: there are more pressing problems to confront.