Students’ Association launches petition condemning Scottish Government’s higher education bill

Rector Catherine Stihler at her investiture. Photo by Terry Lee

A petition launched by the Students’ Association to ‘save our rector’ has gained over 3,000 signatures and attention from the national press.

The petition condemns the Scottish Government’s Higher Education (Scotland) Bill, claiming that it would make devastating changes to role of rector at Scotland’s ancient universities.

The bill, introduced by the Scottish Government this year, is intended to make significant changes to the way in which universities are governed. It intends to standardize the way chairs of university courts are elected across the whole of Scotland; for some implying that the rector, who chairs the court at St Andrews, would be made redundant.

The petition claims that the bill: “threatens to dismantle one of our oldest traditions by removing our strongest student advocate: the rector.”

The bill, which in fact makes no mention of the rector, would introduce elections for chairs of university courts across Scotland. However, candidates would first have to go through vetting by what the petition describes as an “undefined panel.” This marks a significant detour from the current election system for rectors, who are required to be nominated by a group of at least 20 matriculated students in order to stand for the position.

It is unclear whether this new process of vetted nomination would apply to the rector, whether the rector would be removed from their role as chair of the university court yet continue to exist alongside a second elected official or whether the position of rector would cease to exist.

The petition goes on to claim that “the bill offers an ambiguous future for the role of rector.”

Rector Catherine Stihler at her investiture. Photo by Terry Lee
Rector Catherine Stihler at her investiture. Photo by Terry Lee

The petition also makes it clear that it considers the bill a threat to the rector’s ability to advocate for students. It states: “One thing is certain. This signals the end of the rectorship as we know it.

“It is odd to invoke the autonomy of our university while committing clear ministerial interference, but stranger still to invoke democracy while destroying the democratic process.

“Further still, should the rector be sidelined on the University court, it will impact their capacity to effect change in other areas of the University. Diminishing their stature will only diminish their ability to serve students.”

However, the Scottish Government has denied that it has any plans to abolish the role of rector.

A Scottish Government spokesperson told The Saint: “Over the summer, we have been talking to all higher education stakeholders, including current rectors, about their views on how a model for elected chairs of court might work. There is no intention at all to abolish the position of rector. However, the eventual model adopted for elected chairs could result in alteration of a rector’s role as set out in statute.”

The spokesperson added that: “As the Higher Education Bill progresses through Parliament, we will continue to listen to all constructive views and suggestions made by stakeholders and welcome the engagement of St Andrews students in that process.”

Iain Gray, the spokesman for Opportunity for the Scottish Labour party, told The Saint that the government must explain what the role of the rector would be under the new legislation. “The bill’s principles don’t mean that the rector has to be sidelined,” he said. “But given that this is the SNP government’s legislation, it falls on them to allay worries about this by being clearer about what it will do and not just what it might do.”

The current rector of the University, MEP Catherine Stihler, has also made her concerns about the bill clear and expressed her support for the petition. She said: “The unique Scottish tradition at our ancient universities of students selecting and electing their rector is a tradition worth keeping. Under the current proposals, the right of students to select and nominate candidates will go, as will the legal right of rectors to chair the ruling body of the University. I fully back the ‘save the rector’ campaign and hope that I am not the last rector at St Andrews to chair University court.”

In a letter to The Scotsman, Alastair Merrill, the University’s vice principal for governance and planning, also expressed his “significant concerns about the implications of the proposed legislation.”

As well as criticising the new proposals for altering the membership of university boards, Mr Merrill said: “By removing the core function of the rector, elected by the entire student body as a champion of their interests, it undermines an ancient tradition with a thoroughly modern outlook. The measures contained in the bill give ministers the ability to make further future changes to the composition of university courts and senates without the safeguard of full parliamentary scrutiny.”

Mr Merrill also said that bill will give the government significant power to interfere in the way in which universities are run, writing that: “this opens the door to greater future political influence and control, and, in the words of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, represents ‘a level of governmental intervention that is entirely inappropriate for an autonomous sector.’ This puts at risk universities’ ability to act as sources of independent thinking and also potentially our status as a charity and our classification by the Office for National Statistics as a non-profit institution.

“This would not only be damaging to our academic standing in an increasingly competitive international environment, but would also jeopardise the entrepreneurial activity that we undertake and the value we contribute to the Scottish economy.”

However, Iain Macwhirter, political commentator for The Herald and The Sunday Herald and former rector of the University of Edinburgh, has spoken out against the petition. In his opinion, the bill in no way threatens to abolish the role of the rector and those claiming otherwise may be “misreading” the bill.

Mr Macwhirter told The Saint: “I was rector of the University of Edinburgh and would never support the abolition of rectors. Having elected rectors chair court is one of Scotland’s great contributions to higher education governance. Any government – especially an SNP one – that tried to abolish them would be rightly condemned.

“I was also on the Von Prondzynski review of Higher Education governance which led to the Higher Education Bill under the then Cabinet Secretary, Mike Russell. The report argued not for the abolition of rectors but for the principle to be extended to other universities. We thought it was a modest extension of democratic accountability to have chairs of university governing bodies elected by the campus as a whole.

“It wasn’t exactly a red revolution – the ancient universities have had elected chairs for over a century. But a number of vice chancellors were unhappy about this – some worry that they might lose control. I don’t see it myself.”

Commenting on the number of signatories to the petition, Students’ Association President Pat Mathewson said: “This is something St Andreans should be incredibly proud of. The voices of nearly 4,000 students and alumni has sparked an essential dialogue in national press and policy circles.

“They have stood up for a unique Scottish tradition and their passion is a testament to the impact the rector has had on our community for generations.”

Mr Mathewson also criticised the government legislation for trying to infringe on the independence of universities, saying: “In general, the bill signals a significant shift towards ministerial interference in what has been a historically autonomous sector.”

Mr Mathewson added that the Students’ Association hope that the bill will be changed and have asked the education and culture committee of the Scottish Parliament to include the petition in their evidence.


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