The Royal Family and universities are not the most natural of partners.
On one side is the institution of the Windsors, whose wealth, position and influence are based almost entirely on inherited privilege. On the other is the university sector which, for all its faults, is based on the idea of a meritocracy where the most talented rise to the top by dint of hard work, tenacity and natural intelligence. It is a world in which those from the humblest backgrounds can rise – and have risen – to the very top, and the ability to do the job (generally) supersedes any reliance on family or personal ties.
So the royals have sometimes existed uneasily in the world of higher education, often taking a good deal of flak when assuming the exalted role of chancellor. Such positions should be reserved for those who have truly earned their place in society, rather than serving as another bauble for royals who might pay an occasional visit to campus, some argue.
I’ll admit I have shared such sentiments at times, so was slightly conflicted when accepting an invitation to St James’s Palace to see a royal – the Duke of York – in action on behalf of a university.
As patron of London Metropolitan University, Prince Andrew had agreed to host about 250 guests in the palace built by Henry VIII for the university’s 2017 Big Idea Challenge Awards Night.
While there was a sprinkling of great and good from business and the university sector (including two ex-higher education ministers, Lord Willetts and Baroness Blackstone), most attendees were either London Met students or pupils from colleges associated with the North London institution.
Assisted by dance school head Jessica Elliott, a London Met alumna and previous Big Idea Challenge winner, the prince presented a clutch of awards to promising entrepreneurs currently supported by London Met and its network of business mentors based at its business incubator centre in Shoreditch.
Overall, some 12,000 votes had been cast in support of the award winners – whose ideas for start-ups included a social platform to bring together neighbours, an online booking service for barbers and Fresh Start, a bus service bringing showers and washing facilities to London’s homeless.
Maybe I am bit sentimental, but it was hard not to feel a bit emotional as the students accepted their awards from the prince in the opulent surroundings of St James’s Palace – with most winners coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, where London Met draws a significant proportion of students. Even for a sceptical hack, it’s clear that many of the ideas showcased had genuine business potential, although they will do well to follow a 2009 winner who sold his business this year for £16 million.
Having the awards in a palace added hugely to the success of evening – a unique advantage of having a royal as a patron (although one I’ve never seen used in this way before).
While Prince Andrew might not get the best press at times, I’m happy to recognise his excellent work with London Met. As a royal, he could easily ally himself with a more illustrious university, but he clearly believes his impact is greater at a place like London Met or the University of Huddersfield (where he is chancellor), where his advocacy for entrepreneurialism in education is embraced.
“To be a successful, you have to experience and have been through some sort of failure,” said the prince candidly on the evening of 24 April. Supporting entrepreneurialism within a university allows for “failure in a safe environment” where, supported by a mentor, students can “make mistakes but then come back and do it again [successfully]” he added – a message from which students of all types of subjects can learn.
He might not enjoy the media adulation of other royals, but few other Windsors will make as much impact on university students this year, or impart such words of wisdom on the topic of education. Prince Andrew does not have the inspirational story of a self-made billionaire shared by some of his pals in industry, but he has royal cachet, influence and connections, so it is heartening that he is willing to use his position to help budding entrepreneurs in universities. And bestowing royal patronage on a place like London Met, an institution that needs it more than the likes of Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh, is exactly what I believe more royals should be doing.
His message was powerful, heartfelt and perhaps showed other royals, as well as business leaders, how they can make a difference in higher education.