The ‘save the rector’ campaign launched by the Students’ Association has garnered attention from the Scottish press and politicians alike. Thousands of students have signed the petition – though it is impossible to tell how many of the signatories were current students and how many alumni – and those who organised it have given themselves a pat on the back.
Now, of course the rector is very important. And of course the petition was a well-intentioned and pragmatic course of action. Students should take an interest and make their voices heard. But, was this action taken prematurely?
The Higher Education (Scotland) Bill, which the petition protests, is still extremely vague in its wording; the word rector is never actually used. It is therefore hasty to jump to conclusions.
Essentially, the bill proposes to standardise the notion that the chairs of University courts should be elected by the student body at every Scottish university, rather than just the five ancient ones where this practice already exists in the form of the rector. The election would work slightly differently to our current system however. Rather than students nominating candidates and then voting in an election to appoint them, the University would select a handful of candidates and then students would vote on these candidates to decide who became chair.
Going on the very bare outline of the bill so far, there is no reason to assume that the role of the rector could not simply continue with this slight alteration to the selection process.
Considering that in last year’s rectorial election students showed such little interest that only one candidate was nominated, it may be worth considering that having an actual selection of candidates to choose from would be better than having no choice at all. What’s more, after the controversy sparked when Catherine Stihler was chosen for the role without an election or the chance for students to vote to reopen nominations (RON), is it not better to have some sort of democratic election than none at all?
Of course Ms Stihler has turned out to be an excellent rector and there is nothing to say that she would not have been elected in the case of competition. But the fact remains that she should have faced a rival candidate. The petition uses language to suggest that the bill’s proposals are a threat to democracy. Yet in reality, they would ensure that some sort of democratic procedure does take place – even if it isn’t in its ideal form.
The petition has done its job and the concerns of St Andrews students have now been heard. We have ensured that parliament understands the importance of our rector. But perhaps it’s time to take a step back and consider that a little change may be for the best. Obstinately refusing to let our traditions evolve will benefit nobody in the end.