The University of St Andrews is known for many things: an idyllic coastal campus, its historic reputation as a world leader in education — and,are you aware that a prince studied here?
But perhaps one of the University’s most distinguishing features is its iconic red gown that adorns the backs of its undergraduates: the red gown that makes St Andrews the only university in Scotland where the gown is worn frequently in the twenty-first century and, moreover, the gown that makes St Andrews the object of envy (indeed, many an Oxfess contribution has been tinged with jealousy).
It was inevitable, then, that whilst scrolling through my phone, half watching Dragons’ Den, my attention was captured by the vibrant gown appearing upon the screen. The gown was on display as part of a presentation being given by two Cambridge grads.
Their business, known as Churchill Gowns, was looking for an investment of £60k in their company which sells university gowns, made from 100 per cent recycled materials, direct to consumer. Does the name Churchill Gowns sound familiar to you? Of course it does, as at the beginning of the last academic year, the University sent out a series of notices warning students not to purchase Churchill’s “inferior” gowns. In emails from the Students’ Association (which undoubtedly will make the rounds again this semester), the student body was informed that: “It has been brought to the University’s attention that some students have bought red gowns from a third party supplier, Churchill Gowns[…] Please note these gowns are not endorsed by the University.”
And the reason why the University is discouraging buying from third-party suppliers? According to the University, buying from third-parties “does not support the circular economy and community benefits our red gowns symbolise. ”Buying a gown from the University, in that case, supports St Andrews’ local economy, according to the Students’ Association email. But just how circular really is this circular economy? The official University shop charges a whopping £159 per undergraduate gown in comparison to the £89 price tag charged by Churchill Gowns. But if purchasing from the University puts money back into the local community, as opposed to giving money to the London-based third-party supplier, our moral compasses should guide us to buck up and fork up the extra £70. I wanted to check that the claims made by the University suggesting a boost to the local economy were accurate. In doing so, I found a FOI request from 2017 that enquired about whether the University had entered into an exclusive contract with Ede & Ravenscroft, and what commission they received.In response, the University stated that they can “confirm that as part of a public tender exercise, an award was made to Ede and Ravenscroft for academic dress hire.” As of commission rates, the University declined to disclose figures.
However, E&R’s commission rates paid to the universities can, in some cases, be as high as 20 percent per robe, allowing the universities to accrue thousands of pounds from the arrangement, alleged The Telegraph.
The apparent official supplier of St Andrews gowns was also accused by The Telegraph of driving up graduation gown costs in “anti-competitive” business practices, stating: “Ede & Ravenscroft was the subject of a complaint to the market regulator for allegedly ‘eliminating’ and‘deterring’ competition by entering into exclusive contracts with 109 universities across the country.” It thus appears that the “community benefits” referenced in the Students’ Association email, may not be as local as suggested, considering that E&R, like Churchill Gowns, is based in London.
In fact, it could appear that the University of St Andrews was willing to take more action than simply emailing its students to protect the business practices of E&R. In March of this year, the University took Churchill Gowns to court on the grounds that the company falsely suggested University endorsement. A University spokesman stated that the court proceedings were being taken as “the action is necessary to protect the integrity of the official St Andrews gown, the university brand and the principle that gown sales help student support services. ”Whilst arguing from the opposite side, Oliver Adkins, Churchill Gowns’ UK managing director, retaliated, “Participation in these ancient traditions should not be reserved for those who can afford to pay a premium, and instead should be open to all.”
However, it must be noted that the circular economy referenced in the Students’ Association email may be referencing the selling of gowns between leaving and arriving students, a practice which the University actively endorses as a means of accessing official gowns at a less costly price. Furthermore, the University responded to the criticisms raised by Churchill Gowns during the court proceedings, according to The Express, by stating that “while the red under-graduate gown is iconic within the town, there is no obligation to own a gown. ”It is also imperative to note that the commission received by the University is not merely some act of cold-hearted capitalism, but instead a means to improve our student experience with the University, stating that the proceeds from new gowns sold in the University Shop flow to the Students’ Association as well as being used to support teaching and research.
When concluding, I would also like to make it clear that I neither agree nor disagree with the University’s practices, and that I myself followed the wishes of my university and bought my gown through the official shop. The aim of this article is to pose this question to you; perhaps you don’t mind forking out the extra money at the University Shop as the money earned on commission will benefit your student experience; or perhaps you believe that all suppliers, official or not, should use 100 per cent recycled materials in gown production. Whatever your stance, the question whether we should purchase a Churchill Gown, like Churchill Gowns itself, probably isn’t going to go away soon.