Having devoted considerable time to bemoaning his father’s various foibles and misdeeds on the pages of this blog, it feels somewhat unusual to be charging to the defence of Prince William today, but I do so because a lot of the faux outrage about the Duke of Cambridge’s admission to Cambridge University for what is essentially a privately-funded executive education course is entirely misinformed, off-the-mark and deserves rebuttal.
Perhaps I should not jump on someone who is still in university herself, but Melissa Berrill, writing in The Guardian (and therefore already doing much better than me), seems to have best epitomised the non-story nature of the whole affair in her polemical piece entitled “William’s on his way – and Cambridge should be ashamed”.
The basic thrust of her argument is that all of the work she has done convincing people that Cambridge University is socially inclusive and not the walled-off preserve of the posh, entitled blue-bloods has been undone in a heartbeat, and all because William is coming to study. The horror!
I’d tell them that I’d been to the local state school, and explain that it isn’t like the old days at Cambridge any more. You can’t get in just because you’re rich, or because your dad knows the right people. The admissions system isn’t perfect, but nowadays they work extremely hard to make sure they admit students based on merit, not class or family connections.
It was a spiel that came easily to me, because I’d done it many times before; on countless open days and access visits around the country throughout my degree. It didn’t always convince people – some had an impression burned too deeply to change. But sometimes it did; sometimes it made a difference.
She then proceeds to throw her toys out of the pram:
I could, for example, have spent it [her time] smashing up restaurants in full evening dress. Or snorting champagne up my nostril through a straw. Or posting Facebook pictures of me lying on a bed of gold coins wearing a top hat. For all the difference it will now make, I may as well have spent it doing all these things – because my argument is now worthless.
This would be a great point, a devastatingly effective rebuke to Cambridge University and a nice little dig at the Bullingdon Club too – if only there were any element of truth and reason to it. But there is not, and Berrill torpedoes her own argument in the very next paragraph:
It doesn’t matter that he’s actually been admitted to a 10-week “professional” course whose admissions process doesn’t directly compare to the mainstream Cambridge one – not a single news outlet has bothered to make that distinction and, to the world at large, “William’s going to Cambridge” is the only message that will be taken away.
Now, I flunked out of Cambridge University half way through my Economics degree so maybe I’m not best placed to talk, but as someone who has successfully completed her undergraduate studies at that fine institution, should Berrill (and the many journalists and columnists who have uttered similar words of disapprobation) not be concerned precisely with the truth of the matter rather than the way that it may be erroneously perceived by others? Isn’t the pursuit of truth and knowledge kind of what the whole university and higher education thing is all about? Is Melissa Berrill really saying that because something quite innocent might look bad, we should avoid doing it? And has she herself not aided and abetted the “news outlets” and the “world at large” in their misunderstanding by joining in this outrage at a totally false straw man argument (that Prince William has somehow snuck in and snatched the coveted university place of some plucky, honest-to-God, working class, AAA-achieving eighteen year old for his own, lazy ends)?
Admitting Prince William is an insult to every student, whatever their background, who got into Cambridge by getting the required A-level or degree results. It’s an insult to every student whose A-levels and degree are the same or better than his, and who didn’t get a free pass to Cambridge in spite of them.
Admitting Prince William to this custom-made executive education course is not a particular insult to anyone, and to argue that it is insulting to students in the main academic programme is akin to saying that me watching an Olympic football game at London 2012 was a slap in the face to the Olympic athletes who worked so hard to earn the right to represent their respective countries in the Games. Not so. Just like me at the Olympics, William will be going there to spectate, to soak in the atmosphere, and – crucially – will pay his own way. Just as I did not walk out of Wembley Stadium with a gold medal around my neck, so William will not be walking out with a coveted Cambridge University degree.
This not-so-subtle nuance seems to have evaded the highly educated Oxbridge mind of Melissa Berrill.
If there is to be any outrage, why not get worked up about the fact that it appears that the University’s Cambridge Programme for Sustainable Leadership has custom-made the course for the benefit of one person? Why not check whether or not there is any precedent for offering this type of course to a small group of private individuals, and ensure that the fee payable to the University by William will be the market rate that anybody else would be expected to pay? Why not – if you really want to push the boat out – have a debate about whether executive education is a good thing at all, about the merits of allowing rich and fat executives from FTSE 100 companies to pay lots of money to spend a few weeks on campus getting drunk and hooking up, and walking away with a certificate bearing the name of a famous academic institution?
Why have we not seen these lines of enquiry and debate play out in the newspapers instead of the William-gate or Cambridge-gate style narrative that we have been fed instead? Perhaps because to do so would require some real, actual research and journalism, as opposed to a simple good vs. bad, black/white debate designed to polarise and sell papers.
If we are going to object to something, let’s keep the arguments tight and to the point, not vague and fatuous. Those protesting Prince William’s enrollment at Cambridge have failed this test.