Leader: Swept up in a right royal flush

May 15, 2008

The academy's revived appetite for the protocol, lackeys and VIP loos of blue-blooded visits ill befits its meritocratic nature

Monarchs in this country have endowed a few colleges over the centuries and subsidised the odd chair, although since the Tudors their contribution to original research has been rather minimal. Yet it seems we are witnessing a resurgence of the royal presence on campus.

Not since Oxford fawned so shamelessly over the Stuarts have universities prostrated themselves so completely before royalty. This cannot be because they sniff a possible bequest amid the Yardley. The last significant endowment to a university by a monarch was in 1571.

No, the revival in the Royal Family's media fortunes after a distinctly iffy patch in the Nineties coincides quite neatly with a decline in vigorous republicanism. As a university visit by the Queen is now extremely unlikely to be marred by hordes of howling protesters and jeering youths, the PR benefits of hobnobbing with royalty must outweigh the burdens of tarting up the campus and dealing with the Palace's flunkies. Getting the head of state to cut the ribbon to a new science park or arts centre is understandably regarded as quite a coup. And, what's more, it so impresses the overseas students. Although when it comes to installing a chancellor, what is adduced a better catch - the Duke of Edinburgh, the Princess Royal or the lead guitarist of Queen (no relation)?

But should one regard the lines of scrubbed and polished professors waiting to bob politely before another royal visitor with unalloyed contentment? Isn't the spectacle just ever so slightly sad? Meritocracy genuflecting to monarchy. For academics who have dedicated their lives to robust inquiry, isn't it galling to have to acknowledge that the only gadfly likely to disturb the calm during a royal visit is married to the Queen?

This is not to suggest that the spirit of Stirling circa 1972 should be uncorked. The office of head of state is entitled to respect. Nor should we deny the monarchy's long association with universities or pretend that non-royal guests do not present challenges. What would be more daunting - the Windsors coming to tea or the Clintons? And it is certainly true that universities are perfectly capable of parading their own meaningless rituals, fabulous baubles and gorgeous gowns without the slightest reference to the Palace.

Yet regardless of the talents and qualities of the individuals in it, the institution of monarchy is not dedicated to the pursuit and reward of excellence. Universities are. Overexposure to those born into entitlement does those who must earn it no favours.

Royals should be rationed. If outright rebellion is too 17th century and boorish protest is too 20th century, invite fewer Windsors and plump for more deserving commoners. Reach for Jo Brand when the first temptation might have been to call the Countess of Wessex.

On those occasions when a royal visit is unavoidable, the opportunities to assert meritocratic values are necessarily limited. Protocol reduces all dissent to silence. Still, on welcoming the royal party, vice-chancellors could opt to mumble inaudibly the old Aragonese greeting: "We, who are as good as you, swear to you, who are no better than we, to accept you as our sovereign ... provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not."

Isn't that a far more appropriate gesture than replacing the toilet seat?

gerard.kelly@tsleducation.com.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments