Earlier this month Edinburgh University chose to shoot itself in the foot. Given the chance to show how the University had changed, how it had moved away from its elitist past, it failed. By contriving to have Princess Anne (seen below wearing some medals) replace her father as Chancellor the University has, again, shown itself to be uninterested in reaching out to those who don’t come from privileged backgrounds.

Source: Wikipedia

Graduates of the University – the body who elect the Chancellor – weren’t directly notified of the opportunity to propose a new Chancellor, there was a notice in the Scotsman newspaper, and little else. The University have my email address. They used it to tell me there was a new Chancellor. They didn’t bother to tell me I could nominate a candidate to be Chancellor.

The University authorities clearly had a candidate in mind and were trying to ensure that no others came forward. It’s the sort of behaviour that made some Parliamentary constituencies in the 19th century known as ‘rotten boroughs’ because of the malign influence of landlords over the electorate. It smacks of anti-democratic stitch up. And it will backfire on the University because their preferred candidate is so inappropriate.

For over 50 years Prince Philip was the Chancellor of the University. He was elected at a time when Universities were still bastions of privilege, places where hereditary power was maintained and graduates were almost all paid up members of the reactionary upper class.

While I was a student I supported a campaign to have Prince Philip stand down. His reign was, by quite some distance the longest of any University Chancellor. Normally Chancellors are only chosen on the basis of long, successful careers. Philip was chosen because he was the spouse of the future-Queen. The vast majority of graduates of the University have still not had a chance to choose the Chancellor of their old University. They still haven’t because of this stitch-up.

But the really damaging thing about the imposition of Princess Anne is that she stands only for privilege and inherited wealth. We could have had an internationally renowned academic, a humanitarian champion, a great artist or someone who has made a mark because of their ability. Instead we have someone who owes her place entirely to accident of birth.

The University has another senior elected position – that of Rector. Here the staff and students have persistently chosen serious, hard working individuals who’ve represented the University community. They’ve worked to improve the University – and they’ve all held the position on the basis of their own achievements as politicians, sportspeople or broadcasters. They do, though, have the unfortunate habit of challenging the University orthodoxy, and occasionally pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes on.

I assume the University authorities were afraid of getting someone who couldn’t front up fundraising campaigns, or lend them a palace for high dining. Maybe they thought they’d get someone, like their Rectors, who came from a modest background, and who might challenge them.

It says to intelligent and able people who aren’t of ‘high birth’ that they need not apply to the University of Edinburgh. It says that the University stands for inherited position not earned position. And it sets back the cause of widening participation to those from backgrounds where people don’t tend to go to University even further. Which is a high price to pay for dinner at Holyroodhouse.