This morning Catherine Stihler (MEP) was elected 52nd rector of the University of St Andrews, an ancient and unique role that has historically been filled by academics, explorers, comedians, activists and the crème de la crème of the literati.
Let us be clear: we don’t doubt the worthiness of Ms Stihler’s candidacy as a suitable ambassador for the University. Since being appointed as Rector, she has vowed to lobby for an increase in accommodation, protect St Andrews’ traditions and help students connect with alumni. By all accounts, students may have been convinced by Ms Stihler’s pledges. Our problem lies with the fact that students were not given a chance to have their say over a current politician serving as their Rector.
At a joint council meeting of the Students’ Representative Council and the Student Services Council on 15 September, the Rector election rules were signed off without the slightest opposition from those present. Clause 19 states: “In the case of one candidate being validly nominated, no election shall take place and this candidate will be automatically appointed”.
Whether the clause was skimmed over or members’ hubris blinded them to the possibility of only one candidate standing is unclear. It has now emerged that students have launched a petition urging for the rules to be changed and further members of the SRC have signed it. Their petition is too late now. The SRC should have been doing their job to begin with. Not one member voiced any opposition.
The process of approaching potential candidates is a long and extensive one. Three days to formally nominate a candidate is simply not enough. A large proportion of students (particularly 1st years) will know very little about the position of Rector. It is worth noting the very group whom the Rector will represent for their whole St Andrews career is the very group that has had the least opportunity to get involved.
What is at stake is St Andrews’ long and rich and history of promoting democracy, a history that has been tarnished by what amounts to little more than an appointment. The decision – backed by University Rules or otherwise – to forgo an election entirely, throws into question how this student representative can ever really be representative of students. In all other elections across the University, a candidate must be voted in regardless of whether they face their opposition. Students are given the opportunity to reopen nominations. It is a poor example of democracy and Ms Sithler’s legitimacy to speak on behalf of the whole student body that a mere 20 signatures is assumed to represent over 8,000 students.
The lack of student engagement in the nomination process is concerning and casts doubt on the result – to quote the Scottish Rectors’ Group document ‘Introduction to the Role of University Rector in Scotland’:
The credibility of any election outcome may be undermined in the event of a low turn-out, especially if it falls below 30%. Rectorial elections are not alone in this; other features of Court democracy may be even less robust in the face of scrutiny. That said, there have been periods when the turnout for a rectorial election has indeed been disappointing. However, recent elections have shown considerable improvement, with a renewal of lively interest in the benefits of candidates who are appropriately competent, committed, and available. Nevertheless, this criticism of past experience should stand as a warning to all student bodies that the outcome of the rectorial election depends for its credibility on a relatively high level of electors exercising the franchise.
The Saint and The Sinner believe that depriving students their right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is an egregious betrayal of students. The Students’ Association, normally champions of the democratic process and known for trotting out such mottos as “Your Union. Your Voice”, have remained reticent. Pat Mathewson, Association president, has said that the role itself is far more than ceremonial – but that cannot be said for the selection process.
Read The Sinner’s statement here.
Mr Jonathan Bucks – Editor of The Saint
Mr Elliott Brooks – Editor of The Sinner