UK: All in ermine and pink

University chancellors are a diverse lot and their role is ill-defined. They range across captains of industry, broadcasters, authors, actors and peers of the realm. Universities UK, the voice of the British higher education sector, asked some of them for their tips on how to fulfil their duties. In the resulting booklet, Beyond ceremony, Professor Rick Trainor, president of UUK, calls chancellors the unsung heroes.

Trainor said: "One thing that all [chancellors] have in common, however, is to be the public face of the university - in particular one that graduates will remember from the moment they receive their degree. Several of those offering advice in this book stress their determination to make every graduate feel special on that memorable day. It may seem a small matter, but that moment should make an impression which can turn into a lasting relationship with the university."

This was borne out by actress Dame Diana Rigg of Stirling University: "It falls to the chancellor conducting the ceremony to do so with pace, energy and enthusiasm. Being verbose or pompous won't do. The best piece of advice I received on being a chancellor came from Sir Claus Moser, long practised in the position, who said `always bear in mind that each and every student will remember for the rest of their lives who capped them'."

Many mentioned the delights, or otherwise, of the sartorial niceties required by their elevated posts. Lord (Andrew) Phillips, president of the Citizenship Foundation, and chancellor of Essex University, said: "I have to confess that, standing in my outlandish pink concoction - designed by Hardy Amies at his most florid - before degree-giving congregations, I often feel like a Ruritanian monarch. There is a parallel: most chancellors are constitutionally all but powerless, though the role provides an 'above-it-all' focus for loyalty to a university."

Sir Robin Biggam, chair of the Independent Television Commission and chancellor of Bedfordshire University warned: "Be prepared to dress up in fancy clothes and make the same speech many times over without boring the audience or oneself, hand round the begging bowl and, most importantly, be supportive of the university's aims and ambitions but without interfering in the established management processes."

Actor Patrick Stewart was tactful, referring to his "magnificent yet tasteful robes" for his Huddersfield University ceremonial duties, while former actor manager Lord (Brian) Rix, of East London University, self-deprecatingly wrote:

"I would not presume to offer advice to my fellow chancellors, most of whom have achieved pre-eminence in their chosen professions. As my own was gained mainly by dropping my trousers in 12,000 performances between 1950 and 1977, I cannot believe any present or future chancellor would wish to receive instruction on this particular activity from me!"

He did add a tip on what to wear if a farceur manqué chancellor decided to emulate his star turn. (Silk lining and velcro came into it.)

Lord (Chris) Patten, when he was Governor of Hong Kong, found that being chancellor of three universities went with the job. He had to remember which robes to wear for which ceremony or visit. Now, as chancellor of only two, Newcastle and Oxford, life must be easier.

For others, like author Bill Bryson, the role presents challenges and surprises. "When I signed on as Chancellor of Durham, I assumed that the job would be varied, busy, full of chicken dinners and generally pretty interesting, but I was wrong about everything except the chicken dinners. Life as a university chancellor is much more than just varied and interesting. It's amazing. It is like this for me every time I visit the university, except that each time it is a different set of amazements."

Beyond Ceremony: On Being a Chancellor..., is available from the Universities UK bookshop at: www.universitiesuk.ac.uk