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Thu 20 Oct – Guardian HE Network – Cambridge University chancellorship and Reading University: first or fail? October 20, 2011

Posted by AaronPorter in First or Fail, Higher Education.
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Cambridge University chancellorship and Reading University: first or fail?

New leadership comes under the spotlight this week as Aaron Porter gives his verdict on Reading’s new vice chancellor and the Cambridge University chancellorship candidates

http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/oct/20/cambridge-university-chancellor-contest

Brian Blessed

Ahead of Brian Blessed and Abdul Arain, Lord Sainsbury was voted Cambridge University’s new chancellor. Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Heading for a First… Reading University and Sir David Bell

This week Reading University announced the appointment of senior civil servant Sir David Bell as its new vice-chancellor. Bell’s career is almost the definition of ‘meteoric rise’. He started as a teacher in Glasgow, went on to become a headteacher, before rising to national prominence as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools and then into the civil service as the permanent secretary in the Department for Education.

Born in Glasgow, reading history and philosophy at his home city’s university, he then went onto obtain a PGCE at Jordanhill College of Education. His direct experience at schools in Glasgow and Essex and as assistant director of Education at Newcastle City Council clearly gives him in a genuine education background. Not to mention his subsequent experience as the chief inspector of schools and then in government.

As universities are increasingly grappling with the implications of the White Paper, and their link up with business, it’s vital that their core purpose as educational establishments is not lost. For those who have met him, Sir David is an impressive individual, with an obvious passion for what education can do to transform an individual’s life.

He strikes me as a man who can breathe new life into Reading University, ensure it is fit for purpose in the 21st century, but without losing sight of why the institution exists. I also can’t help but think, he’s chosen a very wise time to stop working for Michael Gove…

Heading for a Fail… Abdul Arain

Notable previous chancellors of Cambridge University have included Thomas Cromwell, Prince Albert, and Stanley Baldwin, and since 1976 the honour has been bestowed upon the Duke of Edinburgh. Of course while the role is largely ceremonial, cutting ribbons and shaking hands at degree congregations, there is a perception at least that this person is a figure head for the institution. And in some respects, a role model for prospective and current students.

So when an election was called to replace Prince Philip earlier this year, there was a faint hope that the result may deliver something other the usual line up of noble lords, dukes, or relatives of the monarch who generally hold the post. Who knows, perhaps the first woman may have been chosen to break the monotony of man after man since 1246. But given some of the rather ancient rules at Cambridge University, I’ve no idea whether a woman is even allowed to hold the role. Even if they are permitted, 800 years of history suggests the culture won’t permit it yet.

However the line up of candidates, although all men, was at least drawn from a variety of backgrounds. It was made pretty clear, that the preferred choice from the university hierarchy was Lord Sainsbury, the former chair of the supermarket giant and a significant donor to the institution. Up against him were the loud-mouthed actor Brian Blessed, high profile QC Michael Mansfield, and Nariobi-born grocer Abdul Arain. Running a classic protest vote campaign, Arain’s candidacy was two-fold; to show that Cambridge University really is open to people from non-traditional backgrounds, and perhaps more pertinently to him, to highlight the damage a new chain of Sainsburys in the city will do to local stores like his own.

Sadly Arain came last when the results were announced, but he secured a creditable 312 in the final tally. Despite some ill-feeling from a minority toward Lord Sainsbury, in truth he sailed through securing nearly 3000 of the 5888 votes that were cast. By weighing in with more than 50% of the vote in the first round, it didn’t even matter whether it was first past the post, or a more elaborate transferable voting system.

So Cambridge University may not have taken the chance to break with tradition of choosing someone outside the established hierarchy or heaven forbid a woman. But Arain’s candidacy did at least raise a valid debate, if only temporarily.

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Comments»

1. James Kennedy - October 23, 2011

Cambridge University will change incredibly slowly. It took 600 years to allow students to opt out of studying religion. It took 750 years to allow women. And now they’re starting to allow poor, rural students (and handling it very, very badly).

It could be 1000 years before anyone who’s not an upper-class white male becomes chancellor, but I’m admire those who advocate trying anyway.

Lord Sainsbury won because gave a huge gift to the university (via the Gatsby Foundation and the Sainsbury Laboratory in the east end of town). And, most importantly, he’s a white, upper-class male.


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