Although modernized over the centuries and adapted to meet the changing times, much of the Convocation ceremonies of the universities are rooted in the traditions of the early secular convocations.
Modern universities rooted in the past
During the Middle Ages, the church was responsible for higher education. Monasteries were the centres of learning and monks were the scholars of society. Some cloisters ran small schools for the sons of the wealthier locals to generate income, but, for the most part, young men wishing to gain anything more than a basic education had to join a monastery. By the 12th century, secular scholars began forming communities to pursue knowledge and truth and eventually these communities developed into independent universities in the prominent cathedral cities of Europeâ€” precursors of todayâ€™s universities. Many of the scholars who taught at these universities had been monks.
Convocation, or gathering, of the best
As universities grew, scholars wanted to honour students who had successfully completed their education and welcome them into the select and exclusive group of scholars. The word convocation originally referred to gatherings of the clergy of Canterbury and York, but in 1577, Oxford University used it to describe the assembly of its MA graduates. Ever since, students around the world, have been admitted to the order of scholars in a convocation ceremony.
Many of the rituals held at modern convocations and the symbolic significance of the regalia date from a time before Oxfordâ€™s first Convocation.
The scarves or hoods students are wearing over their shoulders represent the hoods worn by the monks. They were decorated with colours and symbols identifying what the wearer studiedâ€” medicine, law, theology or the liberal arts. Today's hoods serve a similar function of identifying the student's field of study.
To recognize the early ties, BA grads of the University like UVic, wear a red hood, one of McGill's colours, and BSc grads wear gold and BEds wear blue, UBC colours.
There is no symbolism attached to the traditional mortarboard. These strange hats, now worn only at convocation, were originally part of the student uniform. Today they are worn by graduates around the world.
During the convocation ceremony, students are presented to the university's chancellor who represents the traditional society of scholars. Undergraduates at the university like UVic kneel before The Hon. Robert Rogers, who is the head of convocation, to symbolize their subordination to a higher order and their admission to the society. MA and Ph. D grads do not kneel as they have already been admitted to the society as undergraduates.
Many large universities which present students in groups by faculty, while some other graduates are presented individually to the Chancellor. At some universities, students are even given their degrees ahead of time and arrive at convocation with their degrees already in hand.