This guest blog on the support of the Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021) for higher education has been kindly contributed by Professor Sir Roderick Floud, who was Provost of City Poly and its successor institutions from 1988 to 2006.
Prince Philip’s connections with higher education, as Chancellor of both Edinburgh and Cambridge universities, are well known. But he was also, I believe, the only royal patron of a Polytechnic. Following Prince Albert, his predecessor as a royal consort, the Duke of Edinburgh was Patron of City of London Polytechnic, later London Guildhall University (and later still London Met.) It had its origins in the foundation in 1848, under the patronage of Prince Albert, of the Metropolitan Evening Classes for Young Men, an example of the importance that the Victorians attached to technical education.
I discovered, when I became Provost of City Poly in 1988, that there had been no contact between the Poly and its Patron for many years. Without any evidence, I attributed this to possible republican tendencies among the Inner London Education Authority and its polytechnics. Concerned that we were missing a public relations opportunity, I wrote to His Royal Highness to introduce myself and to ask if we might use his name on our letterhead and publicity material. A rapid reply delighted me; we could of course use his name and, by the way, he would like to receive an invitation to visit.
It was the first of a number of visits, some for university ceremonies, others to see the work of departments. Despite some qualms, all went well. We were – in view of Prince Philip’s reputation for gaffes – particularly anxious about an occasion when we introduced him to a group of black women returners to higher education. We need not have worried; he was charm personified, so much so that after he left the room the entire group burst into tears of delight. He showed genuine interest in the work of the Polytechnic, which included civil aviation studies but also topics further from his experience such as silversmithing and jewellery, furniture design and musical instrument making. He liked to talk to people. We learnt that he was quickly bored by exhibitions or displays and preferred instead to delve into the depths of our buildings; members of staff, working quietly at their desks, were startled to be accosted by the Duke asking: “And what do you do?”
Ceremonial events – the Duke must have attended so many of them, as patron of over 700 organisations – had their own dangers. On one occasion, we were treated to a disquisition on the battle of the Atlantic; it was very interesting, but we began to wonder if he had picked up the wrong speech, intended for delivery in Liverpool the next day. Fortunately, he returned to the City of London and our work before there was too much embarrassment. He was dignified but never stuffy and I and my senior colleagues remember his human side, his pleasure at giving me a ride in his LPG-fuelled London taxi and his beautifully polished but clearly well-worn shoes. Above all, he evinced absolutely no snobbery; to him, if not to everyone inside and outside higher education, City Poly deserved as much attention and praise as the most prestigious research university.