Patrick O’Hare, President of the Students’ Association between 2011-12, has lambasted the governance of the University of St Andrews, depicting the institution as a behemoth that, during his time as President, “exercised a kind of informal censorship” and whose managers were prone to changing minutes of meetings.
Writing for the online newspaper, We Are Not Rats, O’Hare offers an intimate and stark portrayal of the internal machinations of University governance, in which he derides the University as a body that felt it their obligation to maximise the University’s income at the expense of RUK students, amongst many other allegations that make for blistering invective against St Andrews.
Throughout the article, O’Hare suggests that, as a recipient of essential funding and investment from the University, the Association’s independence was continually undermined. He asserts that the University laid pressure upon the Union, allowing them (the Students’ Association) “to do and say as we pleased but only at the risk of losing millions of pounds.”
Reflecting on the University’s decision to increase fees for RUK students to £9,000, O’Hare recalls how a member of the Principal’s Office refused a meeting with him on the grounds that “they didn’t want to be lobbied by ‘constituencies’”. He claims that this was a common attitude towards the Sabbatical officers, purporting that they were seen as “partisan campaigners, subject to irrational pressures, while management and lay members of court were seen as objective and rational actors, taking decisions with surgical precision which would ensure the best long-term interests of the University.”
Leading up to the decision, O’Hare reveals how, despite University management promising to offer a range of fee options, hopes were dashed when University Court was presented with only one option: £9,000. He goes on to question the scrutiny exercised by University management with regard to the ultimate decision to hike fees, recounting how one lay member, who was absent and whose job was to examine management decisions, wrote that they had never disagreed with the Principal in all their days in Court, so would be voting with the dominant proposal. “So much for scrutiny,” writes O’Hare.
Yet rather than merely suggesting an air of apathy at the heart of University governance, O’Hare alleges that “University Court members felt it was their obligation to maximise the University’s income at the expense of the RUK student body. It was even sadder to observe that many academics also seemed to feel the same,” he writes. He goes on to note that when he raised the issue of increased fees at the Academic council, the operating body of the University Senate which has responsibility over academic matters, “the announced topic was met only with blank stares.”
Reflecting on the controversy that surrounded last year’s establishment of the Principal’s Student Advisory Group, “the brainchild of a Swedish final-year student,” as O’Hare puts it, his protestations that the group was wholly unelected and undemocratic were dismissed by the University: “Instead of a reasonable response or discussion, I was instead shouted down. Naturally, no note of the incident appeared on in the official minutes of the meeting,” he writes.
Throughout the article, O’Hare accuses the University of presenting minutes that “did not adequately represent the contents of meetings. Important comments would be left out; record of student dissent would be minimal or general assent would be assumed if no comments were made.” He goes onto purport that minutes were passed around senior University figures before being approved.
Writing on the decision to postpone a referendum on whether St Andrews would rejoin the NUS, O’Hare recalls with shock that a University representative threatened to resign if they “did not get their own way.” He comments that the timescale for a vote, four weeks, which was questioned by many at SRC and SSC meetings, was “tight, but achievable.”
Despite claiming to have maintained “excellent relations with University staff”, he concludes with a damning indictment of University governance, writing: “It would be a fitting tribute to the University of St Andrews on its 600th anniversary for it to become a more democratic institution.”
A University spokesman responded to the article, saying: “Unfortunately there are too many inaccuracies and substantially incorrect claims in this long essay to address them all point by point. They paint a picture of a University we and many others simply do not recognise and we can only speculate about what might have motivated the timing of such a one-sided critique.
“The University is moving forward, and Patrick should too, although of course we understand that it can be hard to leave St Andrews behind.
“We wish him the very best in his new endeavours at Cambridge, but suggest that he would have been the first to argue that old Presidents should leave matters of student politics and governance at St Andrews to the currently elected Sabbatical Officers,” he said.
The full article can be read here.