Surprise order of Bath has landed us with a right royal chancer

Joanna Lewis asks whether appointing ‘a decent enough upper-class numpty’ as chancellor is the best her alma mater can do

February 21, 2013

Source: David Lyttleton

We need the inspiration of a life of genius, achievement and hard work. Instead we get a highly strung Windsor with form as a plastic gherkin

The other day, like millions of others, I logged on to the computer at 7.30am before leaving for work in an attempt to outsmart the first emails of the day.

Who was I kidding? I had 20 minutes to answer anything urgent, eat porridge, find shoes, replace water in dogs’ bowl, take porridge out of hair, find dogs, defrost car windscreen and start the car before haring to the station.

Then there it was: nestling between the demands and notices, an email with a subject line so absurd that it brought me to a standstill and suddenly it didn’t matter how many trains I missed: “His Royal Highness, the Earl of Wessex, to be Chancellor of Bath University”.

Bath’s vice-chancellor, Dame Glynis Breakwell, was proud to announce that HRH “will be an excellent advocate for us both nationally and internationally”.

As a proud alumna of Bath, I found the news surreal. The Queen’s youngest son, Prince Edward, famously got into the University of Cambridge in the 1980s with far lower grades than the rest of us. He then threw himself into learning with a singular lack of enthusiasm (Spitting Image once wickedly suggested that his bodyguard was writing his essays). Graduating with a Desmond (2:2), he left the Royal Marines before a year was up and embraced his love of the theatre and musicals, unfairly earning the nickname Babs Windsor. Thereafter events read like a script for Carry on Up The Windsors. He set up a film company, Ardent Productions. Flop followed flop, including a cringe-inducing royal version of It’s a Knockout. Celebrity hosts included the much-missed Les Dawson and the now much-investigated Stuart Hall. At one point, contestants dressed up as giant vegetables and wielded oversized plastic hams. Finally, there was a violation of privacy issue. Ardent tried to film the Duke of Cambridge while he was studying at university.

To give him credit, the Earl did help out with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee - and a tour of St Lucia, Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda must get monotonous. And with the Prince of Wales keen to distance himself from unpopular royals, the Earl might well enthusiastically embrace a chancellorship to strengthen his hand.

Does any of this really matter - one more sinecure, to a decent enough upper-class numpty? It’s not the first and it won’t be the last. In some ways he is a family intellectual, being only the fourth of five members of the Royal Family to hold a degree. And compared with Lord Tugendhat, his predecessor as chancellor, he has the advantage of a name that doesn’t sound like pot of Swiss yogurt.

Dame Glynis has said that “His Royal Highness can make a major contribution to the life of the university.” Yikes! Is that really a good thing? This is the HRH whose company made a profit only when he did not draw a salary; it was finally wound down in 2009 with a grand total of £40 in assets. (I’d love to overhear the conversation when the Earl is shown around Bath’s world-class School of Management.)

A chancellor confers degrees at graduation ceremonies and represents the university. What exactly does the Earl represent that makes him worthy of deference from students? His friendship with Su Pollard? His social skills? He famously stormed out of a press interview when his musical was not greeted with rapturous praise. His wife? Fresh from one of her visits to the lovely, tolerant ruling family of Bahrain, perhaps she is to advise on ethical overseas investment.

I would argue that it does matter a great deal that a relatively young and dynamic institution such as Bath will have as a figurehead someone who represents privilege by birth, class snobbery and social exclusion. Surely such an appointment makes a mockery of what higher education should be built upon: merit, fairness, application, industriousness and ability. To judge by their response, many of the university’s academics apparently think the same. And the decision to make this announcement ahead of the formal discussion of the matter by the university court on 12 March looks like a cynical calculation.

Why not appoint one of the great engineers, scientists or entrepreneurs the university has produced? More than ever we need the inspiration of a life of genius, achievement and hard work laid before the younger generation to steer this country away from terminal decline. Instead we get a highly strung Windsor with form as a plastic gherkin.

Given all the evidence that social mobility has regressed, it is crucial that education, both practically and symbolically, upholds equal opportunities to learn, to conduct research and to shape a future according to ability. The alternative means a waste of talent: it means people getting jobs they are not up to; it means the gap widening between haves and have-nots.

The Royal Family does a great job when its members work for our wonderful armed services and when they take on charitable or unfashionable causes. Instead of becoming chancellor of Bath, far better for the Earl to become patron of estate agents or of revenue inspectors. Royals have no place as heads of universities in our fragile 21st century.

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