The Coimbra Students, Life of The City

Students are represented by the students’ union Associação Académica de Coimbra (AAC). Formed on 3 November 1887, it is the oldest university students’ union in Portugal, with a long history of struggle against unpopular state policies, forming notable politicians and intellectuals along the way. It also harbours a very dynamic associative life, with its numerous sports and cultural sections, as well as a number of other autonomous organizations. It is an important structure of extracurricular formation of the University of Coimbra’s students and a major institution of the city itself. The AAC develops activities such as theatre, cinema, radio and television broadcast, music, choral singing, journalism or philately, as well as rowing, athletics and many other sports. Every student, and occasionally some non-students, are entitled to belong to these sections.

The university’s academic traditions and institutions color the life of the city. The old “Republics” (autonomous students’ residences) remain, as well as some traditional festivities, most notably the “Queima das Fitas” (a celebration of graduation’s end, symbolized by the burning of the ribbons with the colors of each of the eight faculties), the “Festa das Latas” (a homecoming), the frequent use of traditional attire, the “Fado de Coimbra” (Coimbra’s fado, now sung in organized shows rather than the traditional street serenades), and the academic ceremonies (namely the conferring of doctorate degrees).

The Praxe is a body of ritual and custom founded upon ancient traditions and it is a controversial part of Coimbra’s academic life to which no university student is indifferent. Part of the attraction of Coimbra’s academic life, aside from its recognized excellence is that it is more Praxe, having unique rituals that set it apart from other institutions and give its students a special sense of participation in academic rituals that developed hundreds of years ago. Though these rituals are seen as crude and violent by some, they remain an important reference in the academic experience of the students for others. The rules of the Praxe are contained in a book (The Code of Academic Praxe, by a committee of older students of the AAC – Associação Académica de Coimbra), which prescribes appropriate student behavior for activities like drafting, evaluation, groups or bands and the Burning of the Ribbons rituals. Even inside the AAC, Coimbra’s student organisation, there are anti-Praxe groups and people who advocate for more thorough reforms in traditional rituals. The Freshman (1st yr.) period (the lowest category in the Praxe hierarchy) is, for many students, a time of good and lasting memories of never to be repeated events. One of the most visible and distinctive traditions is the use of the academic costume of the University of Coimbra, a black suit and cape worn on special occasions by the students, which was adopted by other Portuguese universities and is actually used by students of almost all higher education institutions in the city and across the country.

Praxis almost disappeared in the years after the 25 de Abril revolution of 1974. Timidly it was reinstated in the 1980s. However the significance of the traditional academic attire changed substantially. In earlier centuries it was common practice for a student to wear if for the length of his studies. Students occasionally slept in it when consumption of wine frustrated their efforts to reach home. The cape would get to the end of studies, heavily cut by friends and particularly with a deep cut for each girlfriend. Today the academic attire is a ceremonial dress to use in formal students ceremonial. It is also somewhat expensive, and not the practical dress of time past.

A student who had been enrolled more than the years of his course was a “veteran”. In the past, when University enrollment was a matter of social class, some students would accumulate quite a number of enrollments. The individual who had the most was Dux Veteranorum, a notable figure in the student scene at the University. In the middle 1980s for instance, the Dux Veteranorum had more than 20 enrollments in Law School but had graduated in only 2 or 3 courses. This tradition is disappearing as the University is putting constraints in the number of years a student can enroll. Most student costs are supported with public money and it is no longer found acceptable that some individuals burden finances to extend their stays without graduating. However, with the increasing tuition fees a student has to pay to attend the university and the attraction of new types of mature students (almost always as part-time or evening class students) like employees, businessmen, parents, and pensioners, many departments make a substantial profit from every additional student enrolled in courses, with benefits for the university’s gross tuition revenue and without loss of educational quality (teacher per student, computer per student, classroom size per student, etc.).

The sports sections of the AAC play a significant role in Coimbra’s sport life, often being the city’s main representative in that area. They include rugby, handball, basketball, baseball, martial arts, athletics, gymnastic or swimming, among others. Just as with the cultural sections, every student, including professional or semi-professional athletes, may belong to them.

The city’s main football club, usually known as “Académica” or “Briosa”, is in formal terms an autonomous organism of the AAC and is called AAC-OAF, but in practical terms it is an independent club, only loosely connected to its mother institution. It is a relatively important team, especially as regards to its huge number of followers nationwide, and plays in the top Portuguese football leagues, having been the first winner in history of the Portuguese Football Cup, in 1939.

Recepção ao Caloiro

In Portugal, the homecoming is known as Recepção ao Caloiro (The Freshman’s Reception). It includes numerous events and traditions born in the 19th century in the University of Coimbra. It is defined as a welcome to the new students, the freshmen (caloiros), and takes place at the beginning of the academic year in Portuguese university towns. In every classic public university of Portugal the homecoming is celebrated yearly. The events are followed in varying degrees by other less traditional or smaller institutions. A street parade of students, concerts, and sports events are always organized for the freshmen’s reception. The street parade organized in several major Portuguese universities is known as Latada, and its name comes from the tradition of tying tin cans to the freshmen’s legs (the word lata is tin can in Portuguese).


“The Freshman’s Reception” (Recepção ao Caloiro, the Portuguese name for university homecoming) goes back to the 19th century when the law students of the University of Coimbra felt the need to express their joy at finishing the school year in as loud a way as possible, using everything at their disposal that would make noise, namely tin cans, which is the original root of “The Tin Can Parade”.

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