Open Eye: Revealed at last: secrets of the ceremonies

Yvonne Cook finds out what goes on behind the scenes of the OU's round the world graduation roadshow

In 1973 there was one Open University graduation ceremony, at Alexandra Palace. This year there will be 26, in locations as far apart as Edinburgh and Singapore. How does a university which prides itself on being 'open as to place', create a sense of occasion and feeling of belonging?

"You get a real buzz. There may be complaints beforehand, but not on the day - everyone is so happy." That, says Martin Shepherd, OU Awards and Ceremonies Centre Manager, is why he loves the job that most people would consider a logistical nightmare - co-ordinating the 26 annual ceremonies for around 8,000 graduands of the Open University.

The OU's graduation season began this year at Harrogate in April, and from now until the final ceremony at the Palais des Congres in Brussels in September, lorry-loads of robes, processional carpets, ceremonial chairs and other paraphernalia essential to the graduation ceremony, will be hurtling across the country - and over the sea - between 18 different venues.

No other university does it like this. But just as the OU aims to overcome distance by bringing education to the student, it also aims to bring the graduation ceremony, if not to the students' home, then hopefully to an accessible location.

This means at least one ceremony (sometimes more) in each of the OU's 13 regions in Britain and Ireland and one somewhere in Continental Western Europe - this year it's Brussels, last year was Paris. And since 1998 a ceremony has been held in Singapore, where the OU now has around 5,000 students.

At each location a suitable venue has to be found and hired - the only ceremony taking place on the OU's own premises is the one at the Walton Hall campus in Milton Keynes - and transformed into a location worthy of the occasion.

Underpinning the ordered, stately sequence of events at the ceremony is often a frantic rush beforehand. "There are venues where you can't get access until the morning of the ceremony, so everything has to be set up very quickly,'' says Martin. "At the Royal Festival Hall last year we got in at 7am and were ready by 9am when the first graduates started arriving." The first of the day's two ceremonies began at 10.30 am.

Each event is the culmination of a process that began the previous year - by August 1998 this year's graduation dates and venues were finalised, so that those eligible to graduate in 1999 (results permitting) could select their preferred ceremony. "They can attend any one of the ceremonies we are holding, but about 80 percent do stick to their local venue," Martin says. Places are confirmed in January after students' results are known.

Some venues are more popular than others: "We get bus-loads travelling from Yorkshire to Brighton because the capacity there is unlimited, so graduates can bring more guests."

Every year an unlucky few fail to get a place at the graduation they want, a repeated source of dissatisfaction.

"About 70 percent get their first choice of venue, but we are hoping to improve on this from next year," says Martin. "We have a new system which allows us to evaluate preferences and start allocating places accordingly."

The ceremonies would not exist without the OU's regional centres. These centres book the venue and organises music, flowers, and catering. On the day their staff will be on hand to meet, greet and attend to the needs of graduates.

"Most of the staff here are involved in one way or another," says Sue Johnson, Study Support Administrator, who is in charge of arrangements for the East Midlands Regional Centre at Derby.

"It's quite a day and everyone who works in the centre enjoys it. The most important thing is to make the graduates feel valued on the day. Everyone smiles at them and treats them with the utmost respect."

The advantage of regional ceremonies, she says, is that they can be small. "Quite a lot of graduates who have also been to their children's graduation ceremony say how much more personal our ceremony has felt." On average about 400 graduate at each OU ceremony.

The regional offices have to make a detailed request to the OU's central stores for the ceremonial equipment needed. This is a cavernous warehouse in Wellingborough, Northants, where the University keeps around 2,000 gowns and hoods of assorted degrees and sizes. It also has ceremonial chairs for VIPs, blue OU carpets, lecterns, the OU flag - even rails for the gowns and mirrors for the robing rooms.

"The OU is unique, probably, among universities in owning all its academic robes, rather than renting them from a supplier," says Martin Shepherd. The explanation - possibly apocryphal - is that, in the early days, the manufacturer, Ede and Ravenscroft, was not confident that the OU would last, and only agreed to produce them after the OU undertook to buy them all. True or not, the relationship with Ede and Ravenscroft has endured and flourished, and the company continues to make the robes to replenish and increase the OU's stocks.

Vital to every event are its "roadies" - porters from the OU Estates staff at Milton Keynes, sporting their Ceremony Tour T-shirts emblazoned with venues and dates of each ceremony. As each ceremony approaches they follow a well-honed routine, load the equipment into vans or trucks, and drive to the venue where they will unload, set up and take down, then repack and return it to Wellingborough - just in time to be packed again for the next ceremony.

A number of other 'camp followers' travel to each ceremony to set up stall - including the OU Students Association, the Association of OU Graduates and the Alumni Association. As young children are more in evidence than at most universities' graduation days, some venues even offer a creche.

Before every ceremony Martin or Tony Barker, Assistant Registrar of the Awards and Ceremonies Centre, supervises a rehearsal of the principals: Presiding Officer, Conducting Officer, Presenters and Honorary Graduates. Each ceremony has its own carefully-prepared script.

Practice makes perfect and ceremonies usually go off without a hitch, but just occasionally the well-oiled machine falters. Says Martin: "We always have someone on duty at the Wellingborough warehouse on the day, so if a piece of equipment doesn't turn up at the venue we can get them to courier it to us."

Relatives of graduates have been taken ill during ceremonies. Honorary Graduates have been known to turn up blissfully unaware they are expected to make a speech - in such cases Awards and Ceremonies staff are on hand to dash off something suitable for the occasion.

Is it all worth it? For some, the pomp and ceremony - robes, regalia, and procession of the Great and Good - smack of the kind of academic elitism the OU was born to counter. But although attendance at a graduation ceremony is purely optional (graduates earn their degrees by doing the work and passing the exams, not by donning a robe and shaking hands with the Vice- Chancellor) the majority choose to do it. It may just be the icing on the cake, but it's sweet.

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