Unique Oxford Traditions Experienced Through a Malaysian’s Lens

April 24, 2018

For students around the world, acceptance into the “Oxbridge” universities represent the pinnacle of academic excellence. Beyond the academic prestige these universities are often recognised for, however, very little is known about their eccentric university cultures.


Kharthik, dressed in full sub fusc at the University of Oxford

Kharthik Chakravarthy, a Cambridge A-Level alumnus from INTI International College Penang and former Masters in Mechanical Engineering student from Imperial College London, moved to the University of Oxford six months ago when he received a full scholarship to complete his PhD at the university. Presently pursuing his DPhil in Engineering Science, Kharthik provides insights into the intriguing traditions at the University of Oxford.

“It is a different experience from my time at Imperial College and in Malaysia. Oxford is eccentric in its traditions and that is what made my international experience all the more fascinating,” Kharthik says.

Sub Fusc
A unique Oxford experience lies in its dress codes. Commonly known by Oxonians, ‘sub fusc’ are traditional dresses required for all Oxford students. Potentially the inspiration for British school uniforms seen in popular movies, the sub fusc includes a suit and bowtie (for men), black shoes, a plain white collared shirt or blouse, a mortar board, and an academic gown.

“Each Oxford gown varies in its designs and presently, there are three types of academic gowns, namely, the Commoner’s gown, the Scholar’s gown and the Advanced Student’s gown, also known as the Graduate’s gown. A Commoner’s gown is worn by students enrolled in their undergraduate or undergraduate masters degrees. A Scholar’s gown is for students pursuing their undergraduate or undergraduate master’s degrees, are scholarship recipients, and/or have excelled in their preliminary examinations. A postgraduate taught or postgraduate research degree student uses an Advanced Student’s gown,” explains Kharthik, himself the proud owner of a Graduate’s gown.

For aspiring Malaysian students to note, sub fusc are mandatory apparel for an Oxford student when attending examinations and official ceremonies.


(second from right) Kharthik and his college friends posing for a group photograph at a formal dinner at Somerville College, University of Oxford

Another prevailing culture at the University of Oxford includes the unique tradition of wearing a specific-coloured carnation during examinations. Tradition dictates that a white carnation is to be used during a student’s first examination, a pink carnation for intermediate examinations and a red carnation for an individual’s final examinations.

Kharthik shares, “Oxford is one of the UK’s most visited cities with tourists from all over the world. It is always encouraging when people who are familiar with the traditions stop to congratulate us on the streets and wish us good luck for our papers.”

Despite its name, “Trashing” is a celebratory event at the University of Oxford, held after students sit for their final examinations. Students are “trashed” in a cordoned off area with items such as confetti sprays, champagne, and shaving foam by family and friends. The event marks a celebratory ending for students after gruelling hours of examinations that are usually held over the course of a few weeks.

Matriculation is a grand occasion that marks the official conferment of membership for a student into the university. Celebrated during the first week of a student’s enrolment as a ceremony to welcome newcomers into Oxford, matriculations are held in the historic Sheldonian Theatre that was built in 1669 – an awe-inspiring experience in itself.

“This unique tradition varies from other universities who typically only mark the end of a student’s academic journey. Interestingly enough, this century-old tradition is a compulsory part of every Oxford students’ journey and students who do not participate will not be allowed to sit for their examinations,” warns Kharthik.


The Sheldonian Theatre where Oxford’s matriculations and graduations are held

In spite these eccentric traditions, Kharthik explains that he did not experience any difficulties in adjusting to his life in Oxford, attributing this to the exposure he received by being a Malaysian and beginning his education locally.

Kharthik says, “As Malaysians, we have the unique advantage of growing up with a diversity of perspectives, cultures and traditions, which not only allow us to adapt to different circumstances, but also provide us with a sense of open mindedness and enjoyment when meeting new experiences. Pursuing my A-Levels locally at INTI also helped tremendously in preparing me to be a part of a global community and providing me with international exposure while still studying in an environment I was well familiar with.”

In encouraging other Malaysian hopefuls to pursue their Ivy League dreams, Kharthik concludes, “It’s never too early to develop yourself, to seek guidance from experienced individuals such as the lecturers who encouraged me to gain as much exposure as I could, even while still pursuing my pre-tertiary studies. I encourage others to build up their international perspectives while still in Malaysia, so that when they pursue opportunities abroad, they are better prepared to be enthusiastic global citizens, unfazed by any social norms or eccentric traditions that are thrown your way.”