University of St Andrews Rector, Alistair Moffat, and his Rector Assessor, Chloe Hill, took time to speak to The Saint about the Rectorial hat, politics of the 1960s, and current issues facing students of today.
The Saint: Welcome Alistair! You are now a year and a half into your three year term in office – it feels like your campaign was just yesterday!
AM: As an alumnus of this University, it really is an honour to be back here as Rector. The campaign was a most enjoyable experience as I got to meet such a large proportion of the student body, which proved to be a really great snapshot of what the university is like.
TS: How do you manage the role of Rector?
AM: The role of Rector is very much a dual function in many ways, because although I am elected by the students, I live in the Borders which is 100 miles away. The role of Rector’s Assessor is absolutely vital – I could not hope to carry out my role without her.
CH: Alistair comes up every 3 weeks which is an incredible commitment. For those who have an issue and don’t know who to turn to, they email us and I can see them straight away, and Alistair can follow up when he comes to town.
TS: What do you hope to achieve during your term in office?
AM: We chose to focus on one big thing each year, as we thought it important to keep it simple and try to achieve one or two things in a reasonable time frame. The wonderful creation of the Fellowship last year arose from what seemed to be a big battle. It wasn’t really – it was a creative process. I didn’t do this job for the great clothes and fancy hat…
CH: It’s so bad!
AM: It suited you, Chloe. Don’t laugh!
TS: You graduated in medieval history, how has the university changed since then?
AM: I was a student here between 1968 and 1972. Nowadays it is much more difficult to get into St Andrews. Everybody here is so smart, jings! When I was here, we were just lumps in comparison. I got in because I played international rugby as a schoolboy! We just turned up and drank far too much beer and behaved badly. Students here are now not only smart, bright, and sparky, but they also work hard.
TS: Were politics in the town as prominent during your time here?
AM: When I was a student it was at a time of political change: students woke up and realised they were powerful. In today’s set up, you guys work, you engage with university academic staff, and you also do politics. Part of our politics was that you didn’t engage, you countered it. During my time here, there was definitely a sense of an old order fading. We felt that if we all bought the Beatles ‘White album’ then it would make for a whole lot of change. There was a sense of a new culture breaking through – Market and South Street were great catwalks…
CH and The Saint: they still are!
AM: …for people who were into clothes, and it soon became clear that you could reinvent yourself.
TS: What most influenced your time spent here?
AM: The social education was the biggest eye-opener for me – a kid from the Borders was suddenly in a town surrounded by such a cosmopolitan range of people the same age. There was a huge gulf between 1st and 2nd years, the 3rd years were so sophisticated and the 4th years were inter-planetary! I had a direct experience with people from another life and social class, and I was exposed to completely different anxieties and priorities. That’s education.
TS: I believe that you married a fellow student…
AM: To fit with the old cliché, yes, I married a fellow graduate. I think one of the reasons for so many strong partnerships being formed here is that it keeps the experience alive. That may be true for my wife and I, as we talk about our time as students here all the time. The ties made here are certainly very strong.
TS: How do you think the international study body contribute to the experience of St Andrews?
AM: There are other universities that are also international, but because they are in cities they are so much more dispersed and so you don’t get thrown together. It is the students here that make the university what it is – they are absolutely front, centre and number one. The university is the students. They attract everything else.
TS: We recently performed outstandingly in the Undergraduate Awards – how important do you think public perception of our university is?
AM: It is terrific that the undergraduates have performed well across the board in these league tables. Universities live in a competitive environment and so it important for us to show up well.
CH: I was president for Modern United Nations last year and we’ve never been to a conference and not won an award. Everyone knows that St Andrews is good at this – we are a very small university but we are extremely good at what we do.
TS: What are your thoughts about us recently slipping out of the top 100 universities in the world?
AM: The way that the measurements are framed favours bigger universities for sure. It is unfortunate. I seem to have seen so many league tables recently – we do well in some and not in others, there is a lack of consistency. I wish there was a gold standard, an objective measurement.
TS: What do you say to our incredibly low intake of pupils from deprived regions in Scotland?
AM: It’s a huge issue. The main point I’d make is this – if you restrict the poll for application to only those who can afford it, you are cutting off an enormous percentage of talent and underusing our greatest resource (our people).
CH: I looked into what other universities do to encourage applicants from lower economic backgrounds, and many of them ask lower tiered school for lower grades upon application. St Andrews doesn’t do this – we have so much to offer, and so we need to be doing better.
TS: What are your thoughts on tuition fees?
AM: I believe we should fund higher education completely from taxation. Completely. We need to give up building gigantic war ships which cost billions and billions of pounds, and instead use that money to invest it in the future. I know it’s a huge and simplistic analysis, but that’s what has to happen. The fees are an infamia, they are wrong. It’s as simple as that. We have got to divert resources into education, and this will require a huge societal change.
TS: Finishing on a more happy note – are you excited for our 600th Anniversary later this year?
AM: The one thing I’d say is that let’s have a fantastic celebration next year but let it not be a 600 full stop. ‘The more I know about the past, the more I understand the future’. Let’s look towards the next 600 years.
Photo credits: Celeste Sloman