Race is on for the ultimate seat of learning

A cut-throat battle is raging for the coveted post of Chancellor of Cambridge university
  • @adamsherwin10

When Lord Sainsbury of Turville received an official nomination to become the 108th Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, the deep-pocketed benefactor expected a coronation. The title has not been contested since 1847.

Now the peer finds himself in an increasingly fierce battle, as an eclectic list of candidates vies for the ancient role. The victor, to be announced after votes are cast on 15 October, will replace the Duke of Edinburgh, who hands over his ceremonial black silk and gold lace robes after 34 years in office. The position involves presiding over degree ceremonies and adjudicating disputes.

The university nominations board, appointed by the Senate, chose Lord Sainsbury, the wealthy Labour peer and former minister whose foundation donated £82m to build a new laboratory, as its preferred successor.

He now faces three rivals, who have each acquired the 50 nominations required to stand and are campaigning vigorously for the votes, which will be cast by an electorate of graduates.

The challengers are Brian Blessed, the larger-than-life actor; Michael Mansfield, the QC who campaigns for radical causes; and a local grocery store owner fighting the opening of a new Sainsbury's near his shop.

The candidates will make their case and take questions during hustings held at the Cambridge Union during the week of the vote. The event is expected to give an advantage to Blessed, who was urged to run after a graduate-run Facebook campaign.

However Abdul Arain, the owner of the Al-Amin grocery shop, believes he has the grassroots backing of students and academics.

Mr Arain, 46, told The Independent: "There is a disconnect between the university, which is a world-renowned organisation at the forefront of academia, and the community. We need to reconnect town and gown."

The grocer is opposed to the "big four" supermarkets driving out smaller retailers from the high street. "It isn't personal against Lord Sainsbury (a former chairman of the supermarket chain)," Mr Arain said. "Go down any high street and you see shops boarded up and new gambling outlets. Those streets are havens for anti-social behaviour. Is that the environment we want people to live in?"

Mr Mansfield, 60, is promising to take the fight to the Coalition if elected. He said his nomination was "a fine opportunity to defend the principles of higher education and critical thinking in particular, which have been steadily eroded by successive governments wedded to market forces." The socialist QC was nominated by Senate members who proposed a vote of no confidence in David Willetts, the Universities minister.

The wildcard is Blessed, 74, who was "shocked" to be approached but is now campaigning with relish. The son of a miner, Blessed was forced to go out to work at 14 and never went to university.

In a YouTube video he said: "I think the chancellor should be a pretty energetic guy, with huge vision, a love of life and a love of people and a deep appreciation of education. He must sweat blood to help people who are underprivileged."

Lord Sainsbury, 70, is relying on his past record, if not his deep pockets, to win the day. "The chancellor should support the university, but not be involved in policy-making," he said. If elected, the King's College graduate promises to be "a passionate champion for Cambridge at home and abroad at a difficult time for universities".

Given the competition, does Mr Arain really believe he can win?

"The electorate will look at what the candidates stand for, not just who has the best acting ability. If I didn't think I could win, then I wouldn't be here."

The Candidates

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

Philanthropist King's College graduate who became chairman of supermarket giant. Former Labour Science minister promises to be a "unifying force for faculty, students and staff".

Brian Blessed

Boomy-voiced actor drafted in by graduate Facebook campaign. Vows to "sweat blood to help people who are underprivileged."

Michael Mansfield QC

Socialist barrister, promises to "defend principles of higher education from market forces".

Abdul Arain

Local grocer is gathering support for campaign to stop Cambridge becoming a "clone town". Vows to fight city centre takeover by large supermarket chains.