The University of East Anglia in Great Britain sounds a pretty dangerous place during graduation ceremonies—a place where mortarboards rain injuriously down on the student populus.
This July, the university has asked that students do not mass in groups of more than 250 to throw their caps into the air at graduation ceremonies, because when they fall to the earth injuries have been reported, apparently caused by the traditional graduation cap’s hardened edges.
The edict has caused students to opine that it takes ‘health and safety’ guidelines to a ridiculous new level, while the UK’s Health and Safety Executive, which has inevitably been drawn into the controversy, has claimed that mortarboards—whose sartorial history dates back to the 11th century—cannot cause serious injury.
The university had originally banned the throwing of mortarboards by graduates in totality, according to student new site, The Tab.
Law graduates at UEA were told to mime throwing their mortarboards instead, according to The Tab; the caps would then be added digitally flying through the air later. A petition was launched to support students who wanted to throw their caps.
Piers Morgan then offered his support to those wanting to throw their mortarboards, leading The Tab to note, “At least it isn’t [self-generating controversy volcano], Katie Hopkins supporting us.”
On Wednesday, the university backtracked on the plan for a total ban on mortarboard throwing.
A university spokesman admitted to the Daily Beast that the controversy had “gone global,” but UEA was not banning the throwing of mortarboards into the air completely. It was merely suggesting the throwing be done in small groups.
Last summer, the spokesman said, one student had been taken to the ER department of a local hospital after suffering a cut to the face. Another student had suffered a broken nose and nosebleed.
“UEA has not introduced a policy banning the throwing of mortarboards—we have simply asked our photography supplier not to encourage it during large group sessions,” the University said in a statement sent to the Daily Beast.
“We have taken this step because in each of the last two years students have suffered facial injuries. If individuals or small groups want to throw their mortarboards they can but we don’t think doing it in groups of around 250 students is sensible.”
Geoff Cox of the HSE, quoted at ITV.com, said, “You’d think universities would study history and do a bit of research before repeating tired health and safety myths like this one.
“As far back as 2008, HSE made clear the law does not stop graduates having fun and celebrating their success in the time-honored fashion.
“The chance of being injured by a flying mortarboard is incredibly small and it’s over-the-top to impose an outright ban. We usually find the concern is actually about the hats being returned in good condition.”
The UEA spokesman noted the seeming absurdity of the reports made it seem a “Great British story”: last year Birmingham University banned the throwing of mortarboards at graduation ceremonies for students in its Classics, Ancient History, and Archaeology departments—again because of the possibility of injuries.
In 2008, students at Anglia Ruskin University were also banned from throwing their graduation caps into the air after an injury sustained by someone the previous year.
Mortarboard wounding concerns have also crossed the Atlantic: the Independent reported that students at one Chicago high school were denied their diplomas after defying a ban on throwing, while Yale was the subject of a lawsuit after someone was injured in a mortarboard-related incident in 1984.
The situation at UEA remains confusing. Asked what punishment awaited those students who tossed their mortarboards into the air in groups of over 250, a spokesman said, “Absolutely nothing. It’s entirely up to them what they want to do. We just don’t encourage students to do it.”
This was merely advice, or a request, the university was making, the spokesman said.
Whether the mortarboard’s design could be changed for it to be made less lethal—its edges softened or shape altered—the university spokesman said that was a matter for mortarboard’s makers.
“The mortarboard is a tradition, and we wouldn’t want to take away from that tradition,” he told the Daily Beast.