Last week, union politics dominated the town. Many of us dodged the slew of campaign flyers and Facebook invites that accompany St Andrews election week, trying to discern the best among the myriad of candidates running for elected positions within the Union. This week, our political interests will shift to a national level.
On Tuesday 22 March, the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood will dissolve ahead of the elections on 5 May. Opinion polls predict that Liberal Democrats north of the border will take a hit in votes, reflecting loss of favour towards the party that formed a coalition with the Conservative Party last year.
Last week, First Minister, Alex Salmond, a St Andrews alumnus, vowed to keep education free for Scottish students. However, the current education secretary, Mike Russell, has said that if re-elected, the SNP will increase fees to other students from outside of Scotland. Considering the wide variety of nationalities collected here in the University of St Andrews, the question of university tuition fees and a new Scottish government will doubtless be discussed at length amongst the new Union sabbaticals.
So it could potentially be not only one but two new teams of decision makers who will decide the fate of students at this university. We need to remember that there is more outside the bubble and the newly elected President and his co-workers will have to bring the St Andrews voice to Holyrood. This is more than just a presence on three main streets of a small Fife coastal town. And it is more than a popularity contest. It is about ensuring the future of tertiary education in Scotland as a whole.
St Andrews holds a unique position in the dialogue on higher education. Unlike our counterparts in Edinburgh and Glasgow, our university is not affiliated with the National Union of Students (NUS), the organization which has led most of the national resistance to the rise in tuition fees. We must ensure that our exemption from the NUS does not lead to our exemption from the debate on education funding.
The person holding the highest position of power within the union may not please everyone. But now, everyone isn’t just the 6,500 or so undergraduates. It’s the entire student population of Scotland, and the UK.
Politics doesn’t begin at the start of campaign week and end when the results are announced on STAR. It will be at its height at the start of the next academic year and will carry on throughout. If this year’s elections have riled some people and this leads to a greater transparency rate and more demand to hold our union officials to account and question their actions, then all the better for a democratic university community. We have seen youth movements gain power and momentum in the east, could it happen in Fife, home to Scotland’s first university?
I guess we will have to wait and see.