Ede & Ravenscroft, the company which provides graduation gowns for Imperial’s (and other universities’) annual graduation ceremonies, has been accused of driving the cost of gown rental up through “anti-competitive” business practices.
In the week that saw more than 2500 undergraduate students collect their degrees from Imperial College London in the university’s annual Commemoration Day ceremony, Felix reports that Ede & Ravenscroft has been accused of holding an alleged “near monopoly” over the gown market. As first reported in national newspapers including the Telegraph and Daily Mail, Ede & Ravenscroft was the subject of a complaint for allegedly “eliminating” and “deterring” competition by entering into exclusive contracts with 109 universities across the country. Contracted universities, such as Imperial, insist that students must wear the “official supplier’s” garments. The universities are paid commission, in some cases 20 per cent per robe, allowing them to accrue thousands of pounds from the arrangements.
Students are essentially being denied choice of robe supplier by their universities and are, subsequently, unaware of incentives and missing out on cheaper suppliers. One such supplier, Churchill Gowns, gave Felix the following statement: “We are selling directly to students and cutting out the middle man (the University) who needlessly take a cut out of the students pockets. Now that students are spending upwards of 30k to graduate many feel it unethical and needlessly rapacious of any university to squeeze more money in the form of back hand payments from robe makers. Ultimately we are trying to offer students choice.” Churchill Gowns claim to be “disrupting the industry” by offering students gowns made from “100% recycled plastic bottles which are not only more ethically made but much more affordable”.
Ede & Ravenscroft gowns range from £45-£50 to hire, while students can be charged between £30-£150 for photographs. Oxford and Cambridge are believed to be the only universities in the country which have arrangements in place with multiple suppliers. Two Oxford University-accredited retailers charge just £9.99 for undergraduate robes and £7.99 for a mortarboard. Ede & Ravenscroft instead insist that students hire a full package of gown, hood and cap meaning that cheaper substitues for some elements cannot be used.
The alleged lack of free market composition has led to students paying over the odds to rent their graduation gown and, as a result, large numbers of students can’t afford to attend their own graduation ceremony. Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee, labelled the claims ‘deeply concerning’.
A spokesman for Ede and Ravenscroft said that it operated in a “competitive market” and denied claims that its success was due to students being “obliged to do business with us”. He continued to say students can choose to hire their gowns from whichever supplier they wanted to and added the firm won contracts because of their ‘competitive pricing’.
They also said manufacturing gowns for a single university can cost more than £250,000.