A person who has completed all requirements to be admitted to a degree is known as a ‘graduand’ (derived from the Latin for being about to graduate). A person who has been admitted to a degree is known as a ‘graduate’.
The graduation ceremony is one of great antiquity. Its essential features have been the same since the 12th century when the first universities came into existence. Its necessary constituents are the Chancellor or his or her deputy, the academic staff, the graduands, and the public.
When the Chancellor confers degrees, saying to the graduands: 'By virtue of my authority as Chancellor, I admit you to the degree of …' those words are a translation of the Latin form used in the Middle Ages. Then, the Chancellor's authority to confer degrees came from the church. The church had a monopoly of education, partly because it was the guardian of true doctrine, and partly because clerics were almost the only people who could read and write. As a result, the only person who could license a teacher was the bishop of a diocese until, under pressure of other business, he deputed the task to his chief secretary or chancellor.
As learning spread, teachers wanted a licence to teach not just in one diocese, but everywhere, and the only person who could give them that was the Pope. The Chancellor's authority, then, came from the Pope. But at the Reformation, Henry VIII assumed for the Crown all the rights which had previously been the Pope's in England. That is why all subsequent universities in England have been created by Royal Charter. It is for this reason also that the Chancellor does not wear ecclesiastical robes, as would have been worn in the Middle Ages, but robes similar to those of the Lord Chancellor of England.
The second group participating in the ceremony is the academic staff. In the 12th century they would all have been called 'masters' or MAs. At that date they were paid no salaries, but hired their own lecture rooms and charged their own fees. But they also formed themselves into a guild or union, which is what universitas originally meant. As in all guilds they were insistent that they, and only they, should determine who should be of their number, and since this involved saying who should be teachers, they soon found themselves in conflict with the Chancellor. In the 13th century they won a great victory when they persuaded the Pope to decree that Chancellors were obliged to confer degrees on all those nominated by the masters. That is why the masters examine the candidates, why the Dean, acting as their spokesperson, reads out the names of those who are to receive degrees, and why the masters at this ceremony watch to see that the Chancellor or his deputy does what is required of him.
Thirdly, the graduands. The word 'degree' comes from the Latin gradus, which means 'a step'. When students are admitted to a Bachelor degree they move one step up towards the mastership. When they are admitted to a masters degree they climb another step and come up on a level with the masters, who then receive them into their guild, or universitas. In the Middle Ages they would then have stayed on the dais, so that their old master could invest them with the symbols of office. But that was only part of the business. The new master had to deliver an inaugural lecture, entertain the whole guild of masters to dinner and preside over disputations for forty days continuously. For that reason, taking one's masters degree was called 'inception', or the beginning of one's career as a master.
The public is the fourth participant. It has an important function because the whole point of the proceedings is that they should be seen and heard by valid witnesses. The public hears the words of the Dean and the Chancellor and sees the new graduates dressed in their respective gowns or robes.
The academic gowns are derived from the everyday dress of the medieval clergy. In the Middle Ages they were not open in front, but closed like a clergyman's cassock. It was in about 1500 that academics had the front opened up so as to display the fine clothes which they were wearing underneath. The hood was the normal medieval headwear, but it soon acquired a coloured lining. By the 17th century, if not earlier, these colours were strictly controlled so that anyone could identify from the colour of a graduate's hood, the university and the degree.
Davis, R.H.C. 1991, From Alfred the Great to Stephen, Hambledon Press, London, pp. 307-309.
Graduation is a formal process at which students who have successfully completed their course requirements are admitted to degrees and awarded diplomas. This usually happens at the end of a course of study at a public ceremony, with the Chancellor presiding, the High Officers and staff attending, and family and friends observing as witnesses to the formalities.
The process of graduating should not be confused with course completion. One cannot graduate without completing all course requirements, but formerly the reverse was not necessarily the case (nor is it still in some countries and universities). One had to apply to be admitted to a degree following completion of course requirements, and admission was by no means automatic. You had to be deemed a fit and proper person (in academic and personal terms) by those superior to you in learning and stature before you could be accepted as having reached the 'grade' or 'degree' that you sought. You were then accepted into the relevant group as a peer (admitted to the degree of Bachelor, Master or Doctor). We still follow this usage and by convention you are 'admitted' to the Degree of ….. rather than having it 'awarded'.
Your date of course completion is the date on which your examination achievement in the final components of your course is found to be of acceptable standard by your Faculty (including requirements such as fieldwork and demonstrations of practical competence). The Faculty then recommends to the University that the Chancellor, as the officer of the University authorised to do so, should admit to the relevant degree. Your admission to the degree follows some weeks or months after this recommendation has been made (providing you have discharged other obligations such as paying any debts owed to the University).
The nearest parallel to the way in which this would have worked in medieval times that we have today at the University of Tasmania is the process by which some higher doctorates are conferred. For instance, candidates who apply to be examined for the degree of Doctor of Letters are not required to undertake a prescribed course of study. A candidate's collected works are studied by a selection of eminent scholars working in the same field who make an assessment about the worth of the candidate to be accepted into their ranks as a peer. Should the decision be favourable, the Faculty of Arts endorses the advancement of the candidate and recommends to the Chancellor (through the Academic Senate and Council) that the candidate be admitted to the degree.
An alternative to being admitted to a degree is obtaining a 'licence' to practice a profession for which you have undertaken appropriate study. Achieving the status of 'licentiate' is still the form of graduating in a number of countries in continental Europe where the concept of being admitted to a Bachelor or Master degree is unknown. Licentiates still exist in Commonwealth countries and are generally accepted as having degree equivalence. For instance, an alternative mode of qualifying as a dentist in Britain is to be examined for the Licentiate in Dentistry. Musicians of great competence and experience may ask to be examined for the Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music.
Although we do not offer licentiates at the University of Tasmania we do offer diploma courses that, in a similar way, provide sound preparation for the practice of a profession or advancement in a profession. Those who complete diploma courses have their competence recognised by the 'award of' a diploma and are referred to as 'diplomates'. The diploma is a document attesting to the achievement of the person to whom it has been awarded. It attests to achievement, but in a different way to a degree.