Crown Assets

British universities have had a long relationship with royalty. It has been mixed: sometimes very close, sometimes in direct antagonism. Now, with the Crown’s role so limited, the relationship might appear limited —although, as the Levelling Up white paper suggested, not irrelevant.

The English universities emerged without the aid of the Crown, but they latched onto it pretty quickly. Kings confirmed universities’ privileges, took their side against the locals, and suppressed their rivals.

Scottish universities were close to their kings, too, with James II asking for papal approval for a university in Glasgow. Religion cemented these ties: Henry VIII looked to the universities for an authoritative view on his marriage; James I and VI for an authoritative view on the translation of the Bible; Elizabeth I hoped that the new University of Dublin would play a part in increasing the civility of the people of Ireland; Charles I made his headquarters in Oxford university and Charles II brought parliament back there for safety. James II and VII got the relationship wrong, imposing fellows on colleges; the defiance of Magdalen College was arguably the beginning of the end of his reign.

Technical education

Universities grew closer to the monarchy as they became part of the establishment. Members of the royal family were involved in higher education becoming established in London, the radical Duke of Sussex supporting what is now UCL and the king supporting, well, King’s. Prince Albert got actively involved with Cambridge as its Chancellor, but also with technical education.

The formal role of the Crown continued as royal charters were used to incorporate colleges and then universities, while some universities were directly linked to the Crown: the federal Queen’s University became the Royal University of Ireland, the new federal structure in the north of England became the Victoria University.

In the 20th century, the achievement of a royal charter at an aspirant university was greeted by cheering crowds. The new reign of the Queen coincided with the upgrading of the pre-war University Colleges to meet the expansion of higher education. This required new charters, and a visit from the Queen to celebrate that charter linked her to this new university status.

There have been many tributes from universities for the many visits and expressions of support from the Queen (a nice summary can be found on Wonkhe).

Royal Chancellors

As the active political role of university chancellors declined, members of the royal family took on these roles, helped by the fact that there were nearly enough royals to go around the chartered universities. With unlimited terms of office, royals served for a long time: the Duchess of Kent for 33 years at Leeds, Princess Alexandra for 40 years at Lancaster, and the Duke of Kent is in his 43rd year at Surrey. Adding the years of his three chancellorships at Salford, Edinburgh and Cambridge together, the Duke of Edinburgh served universities for 114 years, combining that with—like Albert, his prince-consort predecessor—an interest in technology.

Duke of Kent, Chancellor of Surrey University (Paul Fitzgerald)

There are still many royal chancellors, but terms of office ended for the Duke of York and his former wife, Sarah Ferguson (Huddersfield and Salford respectively).

Levelling up

The Levelling Up white paper clearly still sees royal charters—in this case, for Institutes of Technology—as a marker of esteem. It said:

“To embed our ongoing support for IoTs as the preeminent organisations for technical Stem education, successful IoTs may apply to receive a royal charter, securing their long-term position as anchor institutions within their region and placing them on the same level as our world-leading historic universities. DfE will set out the criteria and application process for royal charter status this spring.”

I’m not sure how much practical difference having a royal charter makes; does an instrument of governance smell sweeter as a royal charter? The key difference for institutions is that when they need to make changes to their charter, the documents actually go before the queen. For example, in December the Privy Council approved a series of changes to the University of Cambridge’s statutes relating to the press and assessment department. While the Queen approving your rule changes seems glamorous, the item being considered at Cambridge concerned changes involving the Chartered Institute of Loss Adjusters.

It will be interesting to eventually see the process that the DfE comes up with following the Levelling Up white paper (it was not published in the spring) —not least because the universities that gained their titles through the powers of the 1992 Act were denied royal charters themselves (some asked). Especially interesting will be the prospect of some IoTs getting charters when their sponsoring university doesn’t have one.

Meanwhile, royal patronage remains important to universities. January saw the Duchess of Cornwall visit Oxford, with a trip to the Bodleian and the opening of a new building at the Botnar Institute for Musculoskeletal Sciences—one of thousands of buildings that have been opened by members of the royal family.

Rowdy students

Normally this goes splendidly, even if crowds have declined in recent years. But it was a visit to a university that was probably the rowdiest of the Queen’s long reign: a disturbance at the University of Stirling in 1972 that included allegedly drunk students heckling and booing the Queen while she was touring the relatively new university site.

The high point of universities’ links with the crown are the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes; the 14th round of these was announced in December. Running since 1994, they have rewarded a vast range of activities, bestowing 296 prizes across 54 further education colleges and 83 universities. The most recent awards recognise the vital work of universities in areas including climate change and Covid-19. Recipients get a trip to the palace and a medal presented by a senior member of the royal family. While there are many other prizes in higher education, this one is properly prestigious. After all, gowns are worn.

With fewer royals and more universities, the links between the two have been diluted. But they remain important. The supportive activism of the prince-consorts, Albert and Philip, might have gone, but continued warm appreciation from the monarchy of higher education is particularly welcome at a time when, in other quarters, it can be less clear. The last few days have seen the reciprocation of that appreciation from universities.

This is an edited version of a blog published by Research Professional News in February 2022

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