Some of you will have seen the “Save the Rector” petition produced by the Students’ Association a few weeks ago. On September 4, the petition was submitted as evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee. It was 89 pages long and signed by 3,544 St Andreans, past and present.
The petition objects to an aspect of the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill that threatens to remove St Andrews’ strongest student advocate: the Rector. This was the Students’ Association most successful effort at national representation in recent history, and the effort should be praised for that fact alone. But the petition had a powerful side effect: It showed just how many people believe in the power of the Rector, and believe that this position is something important enough to be protected.
The position of the Rector has existed in the five ancient Scottish universities – St Andrews, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen – since 1858, though St Andrews’ first Rector was installed in 1411. The job of the Rector is first and foremost to ensure that student interests and wellbeing are always at the heart of the decisions of the university. The Rector is directly elected by the students to Chair the University Court, the highest governing body in the University, and they use this position to represent students at the highest levels of governance. Given their position, the Rector is also uniquely situated to assist students with any individual problem they may have, the subject of which is often wide in scope.
The Rector also appoints an assessor (that’s me!) that helps them deal with Rectorial business when they’re not available, supports them in their role, and serves as their link to the student body. As the Rector’s Assessor, I also sit on the University Court in my own right, which brings the number of students on Court up to three.
St Andrews has had some incredible Rectors. They range from celebrities and townies, to an unusually long string of children’s book writers – and their contributions to the university have been immeasurable. John Cleese gave the University Court another student member, ensuring that his Assessor was a current student of the University. Kevin Dunion advocated for the creation of School Presidents and the School Presidents Forum, giving students a way to directly affect what they’re learning, and give effective feedback to those in charge of their curriculums. Andrew Carnegie assisted the university in procuring its first Sports Park, Katharine Whitehorn saw the University Court proceed under its first female chair, and Alastair Moffat oversaw the creation of the Rectors’ Fund, a scholarship programme designed to assist students in completing summer internships. It’s not small stuff – and this is only a small sample of the things that the Rector is capable of achieving.
Being able to directly elect the Chair of the University Court is a privilege that we may take advantage of – until we’re threatened with its removal. The dozens of Rectors that came before Catherine were able to affect change not only because of the faith entrusted to them by students, but because that faith led to their position as Chair of the University Court. With each Rectorial Installation, the Rector becomes a leader of the community that we all hold dear (however cynical we may be). The proposed legislation is set to destroy that ability – but the members of our community came out in force against it, and they came out for a reason.
Here at St Andrews, we’re practically overrun with ceremonies, traditions, and fancy gowns. It’s easy to forget that some of those traditions, such as that of the position of Rector, still actively need to be protected. The 3,544 signatures that now sit on Parliament’s desk symbolize that we at St Andrews will always be here to protect what we care about– and that’s something to be very proud of.