Degrees have been conferred in the name of the Senate since 1856. From that time, the Conferring of Degrees ceremony has undergone changes in name, nature and frequency.

On this webpage: In the 1850s / 1860s / 1870s / 1880s / 1890s / early 1900s / 1910s / 1920s / 1930s / 1950s / 1960s / 1970s / 1980s / 1990s / early 2000s / today.

In the 1850s

1853:  The ceremony at which matriculated students were admitted, prizes and scholarships awarded and, from 1856, degrees conferred was known as the 'Encaenia' or annual Commemoration of the founding of the University.  
  The ceremony was held in the building previously known as Sydney College (now Sydney Grammar School) which was where the University was situated before it moved to its current location.
  The original words for the ceremonies to award prizes, scholarships and honors, and admit to degrees were in Latin – Read the Latin for the conferring of degrees.
1854: A silver mace, manufactured in Sydney and the largest piece of silver work yet made in the colony, was given to the University by Queen Victoria as a symbol of Senate's authority and for use in ceremonial processions, in particular the annual Commemoration.
1855: The first Esquire Bedell (mace-bearer) was appointed.
1856: The first Commemoration ceremony where the degree of Bachelor of Arts was conferred was held on 18 February. The ceremony comprised: the academic procession, the Provost's brief speech in Latin, the presentation of undergraduates who had won prizes and honours during the past year, the conferring of degrees, the Provost's lengthy address and the Governor's brief speech – find out more.
1859: At its meeting on 17 June, the Senate decided that the term ‘Commemoration’ would now be used to refer to the public occasion when the names of University benefactors were announced. (The first such ceremony had been held in 1854.)
  The first joint Commemoration of Benefactors and Conferring of Degrees ceremony was held at 11.00am on Monday 18 July in the Great Hall at the University – find out more. It was also the first such ceremony held in the Great Hall.

In the 1860s

1865: The term 'Commemoration Day' came into use for the Commemoration of Benefactors and Conferring of Degrees ceremony.

In the 1870s

1876: At this typical Commemoration Day ceremony, the conferral of degrees and prizes and the reading out of the names of the benefactors to the University were followed by the Chancellor's lengthy address and then speeches by Dr Badham and by the Governor.

In the 1880s

1880: The annual Commemoration Day ceremony had become a notable academic and social event in Sydney, held in the Great Hall usually on Saturday afternoons.
  At the same time, however, the annual ceremony increasingly experienced the problem of unruly student behaviour, especially during the long speeches. This was partly an expression of student protest that it had become a 'dreary ceremony' which failed to celebrate the chief point of the occasion - the success of the students.
1882: This was the first ceremony when the new organ was played.
1885: The first women students graduated.
1887: At this ceremony, the Chancellor's address ran to 30 printed quarto pages.
1888: The students gave their first impromptu concert for the audience at the annual ceremony, singing specially composed topical songs.

In the 1890s

1890: The ceremonies lasted on average for two hours.
1891: It was reported that the 'success of the proceedings was greatly interfered with by the disorderly conduct of the undergraduates, who were allowed to convert the celebration into a farce (South Australian Register, 13 April). The Chancellor could not make himself heard, was unable to complete his speech. Senate determined to 'inquire into the recent disorderly proceedings on Commemoration Day'.
1892: Instead of, as previously, the graduands and undergraduate students  marching in and spreading themselves at the back of the dais, they now were placed in a space in the body of the hall immediately in front of the dais - where they could be seen by the professors. Their former place on the dais was now reserved for representative visitors.
  There was also a change to the order of proceedings, with the commemoration of benefactors preceding instead of following the conferring of degrees.
1893: The delivery of the Chancellor's address following the conferring of degrees was dispensed with, but printed copies were distributed. There was a marked improvement in the behaviour of the students.
1896: Part of the general problem of student behaviour at Commemoration Day ceremonies was thought to arise from the overcrowding of the Great Hall, and the Professorial Board made the suggestion of either restricting attendance or finding a larger hall for the ceremony. The Senate adopted the second suggestion and hired the Sydney Town Hall for the ceremony.
1897: The Town Hall was again used for the ceremony.
  The students organised a procession from the University, through Sydney streets to the Town Hall,
1898: The ceremony was once more held in the Great Hall and no student procession took place that year. The students sang some songs but were generally well behaved. However, the Chancellor omitted half of his speech when the students broke out with the National Anthem after the first half.
1899: Students again held a procession in the city, and in the Great Hall they were noisy, flaunted faculty and other banners, and got through a number of specially composed topical songs. Again, the Chancellor was forced to cut short his address because of the students' behaviour.

In the early 1900s

1900: The Senate decided to suspend the Commemoration Day ceremony and to confer degrees at a special meeting in the Great Hall to which the undergraduates students and the public were not invited. 
  However, the students reacted by organising their own Commemoration of Benefactors ceremony at the Town Hall and holding another city procession beforehand.
1902: Undergraduates were excluded from the ceremony, which was a quiet and dignified event.
1903: The students, having promised the Senate to be well behaved, were allowed to attend the ceremony in the Town Hall which followed their procession from the University, through city streets to the Town Hall.
1904: The ceremony continued to be held in the Town Hall.

In the 1910s

1911: The culmination of poor student behaviour during the annual Commemoration Day ceremony over several years led to the Senate prohibiting a city procession. However, students held an unauthorised Commemoration including a function of their own at the Town Hall.
1912: A compromise was achieved between the University authorities and the undergraduates, with the Commemoration Day ceremony being held on a different day from the Students' Festival and Procession.  The Conferring ceremony returned to the Great Hall.

In the 1920s

1925: Senate decided that from 1926 the ceremony of Commemoration of Benefactors would be held apart from the ceremony of Conferring of Degrees.
1926: The ceremony of Conferring of Degrees, now beginning to be referred to as a graduation ceremony, was held in April and the Commemoration of Benefactors ceremony in October.
1928: The first time more than one Conferring of Degrees ceremony was held in one year. The total number of graduates for the year was 400, half of whom came from the Faculty of Arts. The first ceremony was for the medical graduates, and a month later, on 28 April,  degrees were conferred on 362 graduates at a second conferring ceremony.

In the 1930s

1933: Owing to the large number of graduands, two graduation ceremonies  were again needed, which became the norm until more ceremonies were required in due course. The ceremonies were held on two consecutive Saturdays in May 1933.

In the 1940s

1949: Gaslight burners around the Great Hall were lit to supplement the electric lights in case of a power failure during the conferring of Arts and Agricultural Science degrees on Saturday 4 June 1949, recalling early graduation days.

In the 1950s

1951: The largest number of students ever to be granted degrees at the same time in the Great Hall up to that date - 270 graduands in Science and Architecture - received their degrees during a four-hour blackout on Wednesday 2 May. The blackout left the Hall lit only by the high gas lamps, forced members of the Senate to enter in procession without accompanying organ music and prevented the use of microphones.

1958: The number of ceremonies to confer degrees in the Faculties had increased to five: 23 January, 22 April, 1 May, 7 May and 10 June.

In the 1960s

1967: Thirteen ceremonies to confer degrees were held : 25 January, 26 January, 30 March, 5 April, 11 April, 12 April, 19 April, 28 April, 2 May, 4 May, 9 May, 10 May and 1 June.

In the 1970s

1975: The final official Students' procession was held.

In the 1980s

1982: The Lady Hailsham Staff, presented to the University in February by the Sir Robert Menzies Oration Committee, is a memorial to Lady Hailsham who died tragically in a horse riding accident in Sydney two days before her husband, Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, delivered the Inaugural Oration in the Great Hall in May 1978. It is carried in procession at graduation and other University ceremonies by the Yeoman Bedell.

In the 1990s

1991: The University of Sydney began to hold overseas graduation ceremonies - find out more.
1993: A Special War Veterans Graduation Ceremony was held in the Great Hall at 11.00am on 4 May. The ceremony was for those who had had to graduate in absentia because of membership of the armed service in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

In the early 2000s

2002: Senate established the role of Pro-Chancellor to carry out, by arrangement with the Chancellor, the functions of delegate of the Chancellor to preside at graduation ceremonies when the Chancellor is not available, in addition to the Deputy Chancellor and the Chair of the Academic Board.
2007: The first University of Sydney graduation ceremony was held in Guangzhou, People's Republic of China.
2009: Senate resolved that the President of the Alumni Council be authorised to nominate a member of the Council or other eminent alumnus to act as Esquire Bedell (mace-bearer).


Today: Some 60 ceremonies for Conferring of degrees and award of diplomas and certificates - graduation ceremonies - are held annually. – View the current schedule here.

Information sources

  • An article by G.L. Fischer, University Archivist, in 'The University of Sydney News', 5 February 1974
  • The Sydney Mail