In an attempt to remove bias both in favour, and to the detriment of, University
scholars, the Oxford University Society of Biomedical Sciences (OUSBMS) has launched a petition asking that all students be compelled to wear commoners’ gowns to their vivas.
A viva (short for ‘viva voce’ – lit. ‘with the living voice’) is an oral examination undertaken by a candidate after the submission of their thesis or research project. In their current form, as with other University examinations, students are required to wear full sub fusc to their vivas. Therefore, unlike other university examinations where students’ identities are concealed behind their candidate numbers, examiners have the potential to discriminate candidates on the basis of their appearance, more specifically on the basis of the type of gown the candidate is wearing.
In a statement on their Facebook page, OUSBMS claims that this leaves the door open to discrimination in one of two ways:
“1) People who wear scholar’s gowns may be given the benefit of the doubt for mistakes and generally considered better, which would disadvantage people in commoner’s gowns.
2) People in scholar’s gowns may have more expected from them and consequently be asked harder questions.”
Given the effort undertaken in other examinations to conceal all relevant aspects of a candidate’s academic history, campaigners believe compulsory commoners gowns for all candidates would help to remove any lingering “unconscious bias” that may affect the final marks awarded by examiners.
Nonetheless, some have taken issue with this petition with one student (who shall remain nameless) recalling the words of Tom Lehrer who, at the time commenting on the state of the US army, suggested that it had “carried the american democratic ideal to it’s logical conclusion in the sense that not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and colour, but also on the grounds of ability.” The student in question complained that the wearing of scholars’ gowns was a “hard earned right” for the students in question, and therefore that the descision should rest “entirely with the individual.”
Other critics have suggested that there are far more pressing issues relating to vivas, including the potential for sexism, racism, and ageism in these face-to-face examinations. However, as one student pointed out: “carrying this campaign against prejudice to its logical extreme would require viva candidates to be sat behind some kind of screen, or potentially for them to be conducted over Skype with the camera switched off. But then again some examiners might be prejudiced by the candidate’s voice.”
When contacted for comment, the President of OUSBMS, Joy Hodkinson, explained that”regardless of how experienced an individual examiner is” such unconscious biases still have the potential to be reflected in students’ grades. Thus students ought to support this “very little change that will not affect the tradition of this institution.”
Is support of their petition, Ms. Hodkinson added that “the Course Director of Biomedical Sciences shares student concerns and has reported that implicit bias is a topic currently under debate within the University.”
Ms. Hodkinson concluded that the society was “aware that such a change would only act to reduce potential implicit bias based upon academic history and that many other biases may still remain. However, in our opinion, such a change would be a small yet significant step towards fairer assessment of students’ ability.”
The petition itself currently has nearly 300 of its desired 1,000 signatures.