The 'princely' price of fame

Class war, the royal soap opera - St. Andrews, brace yourself

A few weeks ago, the world discovered St. Andrews. OK, the place has been known for a long time among those who worship golf. But the town and the university have not always shared the renown enjoyed by the hallowed links.

Then along came Prince William, heir to the throne, who recently announced his intention to attend the university. Suddenly, journalists from around the world are eager for any new angle on the story.

Though St. Andrews is the third-oldest university in Britain and an institution of immense academic standing, it has taken an 18-year-old prince to thrust it into the limelight. Most people in the town and the university are delighted, though whether their pleasure will survive the arrival of the paparazzi remains to be seen.

The university immediately beefed up its public relations staff to handle the anticipated flood of press attention. Over at the recruitment office, smiles stretch from ear to ear. The university, of course, wants good students, but hardly minds if they come mainly to get a glimpse of the prince.

In time, I suspect, the more sober residents will see William's arrival as a double-edged sword. The university has long suffered an image problem. Within Scotland, it's seen as a haven for English elites, a tag that discourages working-class Scots from applying. The principal of Lochgelly High School, in one of Scotland's poorest areas, once said that a good student of his was as likely to go to Mars as to St. Andrews. The excessive Englishness of the university doesn't sit well with the recently devolved Parliament, which feels the oldest university in Scotland should be more Scottish. Shortly after devolution last year, a delegation of politicians visited the university to pressure administrators to increase the proportion of native students.

But that job is made more difficult by William's decision. In Scotland, he's an English prince - confirmation of English domination at St Andrews. After all, he wouldn't go where he's not welcome. Newspapers confirm this impression; the Guardian described St. Andrews as "a haven for upper-class English dimwits."

Perhaps even more worrying is the damage the prince's decision has done to the academic reputation of St. Andrews. Virtually overnight, the university has been transformed into a Bacchanalian paradise by journalists keen on the idea of a playboy prince. There's been extensive copy written on the students' legendary capacity for excess. According to the papers, the university is widely known as "St. Randy's" - a nickname I'd never heard in the 10 years I've lived here.

St. Andrews students aren't saints. Yet, surely every university in the world has high-spirited students who occasionally allow enjoyment to overflow. This isn't a problem peculiar to St. Andrews, but a phenomenon that defines studenthood.

What we're witnessing is, in truth, the sinister rumblings of class war. Prince William, for those who love and hate him, isn't really royalty in the old, reverential sense, but a star in the world's most popular soap opera, observed with obsessive fascination. Stars don't do boring things like go to university and study art history - William must have chosen St. Andrews because of its hedonistic pleasures. Furthermore, the idea the prince might actually want to study implies a monarchy worthy of respect - a hard nut to swallow.

Because it's widely assumed the royals are stupid, St. Andrews has to be transformed into a second-rate institution in order to accommodate the prince. Either that, or his A-level results (the exams which determine university admission) must have been cooked. This is in keeping with a recent populist campaign by the Labour government against the elitism of British higher education.

The poster child of that campaign was recently rejected by Oxford even though she scored five A's at A-level (the equivalent of perfect SAT scores). She was rejected, the government argued, because she had the misfortune of a state - rather than a private-school - education. Harvard accepted her.

That case is more complicated than the public likes to believe. The same could be said for William's acceptance to St. Andrews. The tabloids like to think the closest he'll get to studying is gazing at pretty slides in the Art History auditorium - pictures familiar because his grandmother owns the originals.

But around the time he enters university, his chosen department will have its top international standing reconfirmed in the Research Assessment Exercise, which grades the publications of all British universities. But I suspect this detail will get lost in the scramble to get a story about William in a pub or a picture of him on the pier with his arm around a beautiful girl.

*Sharon Roe - an American, and former lecturer at Stirling University in Scotland - runs her own public relations business from St. Andrews.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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