What will the Duchess of Sussex mean for global higher education?

Academics assess the impact Meghan Markle may have in her new role as patron of the Association of Commonwealth Universities

February 6, 2019
Meghan Markle
Source: Getty
The Duchess of Sussex greets students at City , University of London

The Association of Commonwealth Universities might seem, at first glance, a slightly surprising cause for the Duchess of Sussex to adopt as patron.

There will have been, after all, a host of competing good causes – many of which may tug at the heartstrings more strongly and offer better photo opportunities.

But academic leaders have claimed that the royal’s support could help to raise the profile of international higher education.

On her first official appointment with the ACU since taking over last month from the Queen as patron, the duchess visited City, University of London on 31 January to meet students and academics from member universities and hear about their areas of research, which included gender, sustainability and refugees.

One topic of interest for the duchess during the visit was the lack of diversity in academia; she asked her private secretary to take a picture of a sheet of data highlighting the low numbers of ethnic minority women in the UK professoriate.

Sir Paul Curran, president of City, which is a member of the ACU, said that the organisation’s “importance hasn’t always been realised in the sector” and the duchess’ role as patron was “bound to raise” its profile.

Joanna Newman, the association’s secretary general, agreed that the duchess’ backing would “amplify” the ACU’s message, “particularly when we’re talking to governments about their need to spend money on higher education”.

Sean Lang, an expert in the history of the British Empire at Anglia Ruskin University, said that the duchess’ role would also help promote links between universities in the Commonwealth, which may become increasingly important for students and institutions in the UK post-Brexit.

“It is very welcome to see a member of the Royal Family branching out into international education,” he said.

Robert Hazell, professor of government and the constitution at UCL, said that the duchess might “help to generate publicity around the launch of new initiatives” at the ACU and “encourage people like ministers to take an interest and attend events”.

“The ACU would be well advised to…use their new patron sparingly, but to maximum effect,” he said.

However, Philip Murphy, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said that royal patronage was a “double-edged sword for Commonwealth organisations”.

“It tends to confirm the strong link in the public mind, both in the UK and internationally, between the Commonwealth and the British Royal Family. And I’m not sure this is particularly healthy for the image of the Commonwealth, which for decades now has been struggling to escape the shadow of the British Empire,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: ACU hopes for Markle sparkle

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