Here's the diploma, now buy the video

Graduation ceremonies just aren't the half-hearted efforts they used to be, laments David Lister
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The Independent Online
Graduation day used to mean a clear and precise routine for students. You'd tell as few people as possible about it; make a detailed study, for role model purposes, of Dustin Hoffman's performance in the 1968 film The Graduate; and get through the day fortified by whisky or valium.

Hoffman, sullen and confused, was feted by his proud and adoring parents; offered all sorts of jobs by his father's friends (recall the memorable dialogue: "Ben, I want to say just one word to you. Plastics." "Plastics?" "Plastics."); and ended the day being seduced by Anne Bancroft. Which is how a graduation day should be. It is the setting for a last act of sulky rebellion, crowning an adolescence spent perfecting the art.

Alas, no longer. Graduation day job offers, like graduation night seductions, are thin on the ground. And students no longer take a diffident, nonchalant attitude to the occasion. Far from it: they want to be there, they want their parents and friends to be there, and they want a professional video souvenir.

This month, apparently,record numbers of students are attending graduation ceremonies, with universities preparing to sell them photographic year books, and specialist private companies gearing up to flog them videos of their 30 seconds of fame as they receive their piece of parchment. The commercialisation doesn't end there. The smarter universities have instant framing services, so that your degree certificate can be framed before your very eyes.

At this point spare a thought for my own alma mater, the University of Kent. Having achieved the coup of holding its degree ceremonies in Canterbury Cathedral, it now has to direct new graduates out of there and down a side street to buy their videos and other memorabilia, because the Cathedral authorities have banished the video salesmen from its precincts.

No university is immune from the Americanisation of graduation day. At Cambridge in 1954 fewer than two-thirds of graduates attended the ceremony. Each brought an average of two guests. This year, 99 per cent of graduates will attend, each inviting five guests on average. Southampton University has a graduate marquee with closed-circuit television of each department's ceremony to accommodate "overflow" guests. A spokesman for Cambridge University says there has been a revolution in student attitudes. "No one could possibly have imagined 20 years ago that so many young people would enjoy dressing up in fancy clothes and inviting granny along to drink warm champagne for the afternoon."

As it happens, we did sort of enjoy it. But secretly: it did not do to make an overt show of empathy with such an establishment convention. Yes, we would don the daft gowns and mortar-board hats. But it would be a matter of pride to ensure that the hat was on crooked and that a tie- dye T-shirt was exposed beneath the gown. Lengthy pseudo-surreptitious glances of despair to friends proclaimed that we really took a dim view of such public displays of self-aggrandisement.

Besides, the whole affair was psychologically disturbing. Who were these parent people who had suddenly sprung up all over the campus? They had never been mentioned in conversation over the last three years. Yet here they were, straightening the collars and hats of a squirming offspring who only a week before bestrode the college corridors dispensing pearls on Proust and Pink Floyd to admiring disciples.

Then there were moments of panic when a begowned, proud possessor of a BA Hons (third), whom one knew to be a hippy drug peddler, came into view of the family group. But these were offset by moments of mockery. You'd bow to the chancellor on receiving your degree unless you had a first, in which case he'd bow to you. A quick whisper to him that his flies are undone and thousands of people suddenly applaud you for achieving a first.

But the days of schizophrenia about graduation ceremonies are clearly gone. These events have become part of theme-park Britain, complete with videos, souvenir programmes and, no doubt soon, faked photos where you can be seen receiving your certificate alongside William Shakespeare and Albert Einstein.

I have a hunch that if Dustin Hoffman had come bounding into his graduation party clutching a frames certificate and video, Anne Bancroft would have driven herself home.