The Principal: Three Years On

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Going into this interview, I did not know what to expect at all. To be honest, I was feeling a little intimidated by the task at hand; it all seemed very official. Questions had to be sent ahead of time to the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, and I was told the Director of Corporate Communications, Niall Scott, was to sit in on the meeting. However, I soon discovered I had nothing to worry about, both were friendly, the atmosphere relaxed and warm, and after a quick introduction and a reference to the Masquerade Ball, which the Principal also attended, we dove into all my pre-submitted questions as well as a few additional ones.

Professor Louise Richardson, when asked about what she felt had been the biggest achievements since her installation as Principal and Vice-Chancellor on 25 March 2009, was very quick to stress that a Principal does not achieve anything on their own – rather it is a team effort. Looking back over the past three years, the Principal pinpointed successes in raising the University’s academic profile and performance in the league tables, hiring world class academics, attracting a higher caliber of students through higher asking rates, as well as successful diversification of the student body through the Gateway to Physics Program and the Sutton Trust. While the Principal did acknowledge that there is still a long way to go in terms of improving facilities, she noted that both the library and IT facilities have been improved dramatically. Among other things, the Principal stressed the University’s success in professionalising and structuring fundraising through a network of support with alumni, culminating in the 600th Anniversary fundraising campaign.

However, there have also been challenges on the path to achieving these goals and initiatives for the University. The Principal said: “the economic climate reduces funding from the government, it makes it harder to fundraise, so that has been a very serious impact on the realisation of our ambitions and the timescale we would have liked to have given ourselves.”

Yet, I would have thought the fee hikes would have helped compensate for this. The Principal, however, informed me that students are now merely paying the fees the Scottish government was covering previously. As such, the fees the University receives do not cover the cost of educating every student, which averages £11,772 per student per year.

Clearly money is needed for the University to function, yet I do not understand why it has to come at the cost of potentially excluding some people from attending university. So I asked Professor Richardson how she plans to ensure, as she said in her installation address in 2009, “Whether our students come from the highlands or the lowlands, from state schools or private schools, from Kirkcaldy or Katmandu, we must recruit the most talented students and we must ensure that they can afford to study here.” Richardson said that an additional £2.5 million has been committed to bursaries and scholarships this year, while 40% of the additional money from RUK (Rest of United Kindgom) fees is being put into scholarships. Moreover, the University is implementing a merit scholarship to the top 100 students irrespective of their nationality, and £16 million out of the £100 million target of the 600th campaign will go to scholarships too.

When the topic of her being the first female Principal came up, she smiled and said “I think it is a real privilege to be the Principal of the University of St Andrews. I am conscious of being a role model, and I’m certainly proud to have the opportunity to break through this particular glass ceiling and certainly hope that by the time you and your generation are my age, that there will be very few first female anythings.” In light of this, Richardson hopes to be looked back on as a very good Principal of St Andrews rather than just the first female Principal. She continued, “If you look at most professions, there is a pyramid structure and the closer to the top you get, the fewer women there are, [but] that is changing. It is changing far slower than people of my generation thought it would, and I look forward to seeing it change at an accelerated pace.”

When asked what a typical day entails for the Principal she said “One of the reasons… this job [is] so much fun is that there is no typical day, except that all days are long days – I usually work 16 to 17 hours a day.” The Principal explained her time is divided between recruiting academics over the phone, meeting with colleagues in the Principal’s office to plan the use of resources and revise policies, talking to other principals about the Scottish universities’ plan to react to government policy, lobbying the government on particular issues, meeting with students at open office hours, meeting with alumni and trying to fundraise. As for giving lectures on terrorism outside St Andrews, the Principal only accepts a few of the invitations she receives, and only goes if it is an advantageous place for her to promote the University and its reputation.

In terms of the Principal’s plans for the future of the University, she said she would like to see “ever higher academic standards to attract ever better faculty, ever better students, and to improve the facilities for them.” The Principal also emphasised the importance of protecting what is unique about the St Andrews experience. Richardson said “My own view is that we are roughly at the ideal size for a university. Big enough to be interesting, big enough to attract the best students and staff, and support their research, but still small enough to be intimate, small enough so that you can meet your professor in Tesco, whether you want to or not. Small enough that you can have friends from completely different parts of the University, the philosophers can know the physicists, and so on.”

As for herself, the Principal hopes to be able to teach a module in the department of International Relations, from beginning to end. Thus far, constraints on her schedule have prevented her from doing this, but Richardson indicated that there might be a possibility of pursuing this ambition after the 600th Anniversary celebrations. For, as Richardson said, “It’s a great way of being able to keep your finger on the pulse of the institution, to have a relationship with students separate from the relationship of Principal.”

When asked what advice she would give to any student wishing to be successful, the Principal said: “I worry a little, especially given the strained economic times, that students are feeling the pressure to narrow their focus prematurely. I would encourage people, especially at this stage in their lives, to take some intellectual risks, to pursue something because they love it, rather than because they think it will advance their career, because if you are working in an area you love you can work long days and it doesn’t matter, whereas if you are working on something, because you feel you have to, work becomes very hard.” The Principal added: “I think it is important to have an active, vibrant social life, but it is only when you look back on your university time that you realize how much time you actually had.” As such, Richardson concluded: “To me time is the most valuable resource we all have. Its finite, use it wisely, to do things you enjoy, things that you need to work on, but don’t waste it.”

There will undoubtedly be those of you who think that I was not critical enough in my questioning, or harsh enough in the post-interview write-up. Nevertheless, based on this very brief encounter with the Principal, I can say, in all honesty, that I think we should consider ourselves lucky to have Professor Louise Richardson at the helm of our University.

1 COMMENT

  1. I disagree with the Principal. The most valuable resource for nearly all organisations is its people. For St Andrews University this means staff, students, alumni and all those who support the best and oldest Scottish University and want to see it continue as one of the most respected Universities in the UK, Europe and the World.

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