Devils Advocate: Do we Need a Rector?

Do we Need a Rector? Lewis argues we do, while Max argues we do not.

Photo: Kylie Andrews

Yes – Lewis Frain

This year marks the latest election of the Rector of the University of St Andrews. While some argue that this role is purely ceremonial and largely pointless, I disagree. I believe the position still serves an important purpose and this year’s election should be taken seriously. Here is why.

The position of Rector is exclusive to the four ancient Scottish universities (St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh) and the University of Dundee. This tradition goes back centuries and serves as a key part of the unique identity of the ancient universities. The position itself, as well detailed by Sara Fay in The Saint Freshers’ Magazine, is to be the students’ representative on the University Court, the main governing body of the University. This means there is one member of the University’s governing body elected by students, who acts solely in the interests of students, not for brand, not for finances, and not for research but just us, the students. Whilst I don’t doubt the sincerity of the other court members in delivering the best service for students, the symbolic nature of the Rector is important. Students are after all the lifeblood of any academic institution and our voices deserves to be heard at the very top.

I imagine most people would agree with this but some might point out that the rector is largely ceremonial and therefore our views aren’t actually being represented by the holder of this position. Additionally, most holders of the post have done so whilst having their own non-academic careers. This includes our current Rector Catherine Stihler who is a Member of the European Parliament. This argument does have some merit but there is still evidence to show that the Rector does indeed perform an important role and benefits the students. The most obvious would be the Rector’s fund which offers direct financial assistance to around 15 students a year to pay for summer internships. This is obviously a hugely important assistance for students and shows probably the clearest benefit that comes from the Rector at St Andrews. Furthermore, the position of the Rector’s Assessor is another example of the Rector helping out the student body. The assessor was a position created by John Cleese, during his tenure as Rector in the 1970s and it provides another connection between the Rector and the student body. The Assessor not only serves as a liaison between students and the Rector but also sits in and votes on the University Court and represents the Rector should they be unavailable. This clearly shows how the Rector both themselves and through the position of Rector’s assessor strongly represent the students within the University Court and the importance of this cannot be underestimated when compared to other Universities.

Aside from Cleese, there have been many other well-known figures to hold the post. JM Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Andrew Neil, Nicky Campbell, and Katherine Whitehorn are just a few others on the renowned list of Rectors. It is obviously quite exciting for the students to vote in well-known personalities and experts in their own fields to represent them and whilst their focus is solely on the students, a little bit of celebrity exposure never hurts. Whom the students choose can also reflect views and make student opinions heard. For example, the University of Glasgow controversially elected Edward Snowden as their Rector. Alternatively, former St Andrews students have also held the post, including the incumbent Catherine Stihler, meaning a Rector can approach the role with a true understanding of the St Andrews experience and also give a little back to where it all began.

Overall, I feel the position of the Rector enhances the University of St Andrews and offers unique representation for us students. Whilst I am not a fan of tradition for tradition’s sake, I do believe that having a student elected representative on the University Court and additionally having a student themselves involved, with the Rector’s Assessor, is a tradition worth keeping. In particular whilst it remains both symbolic and effective in real terms. So when the election comes up later this year I believe us students should embrace the unique vote with enthusiasm.

No  – Max Waller

This year we are going to have another election which is going to divide the community in half.  

No, Theresa May is not going to call another election in order to demonstrate how strong and stable she is, I am talking about the rector election.  

What’s the point of it?  Only the other ancient universities in Scotland have rectors, and while they are chair of the University Court, the student association can adequately represent the views of students while possessing a democratic mandate.  In Glasgow, Edward Snowden has just finished his term as Rector, where he was unable to carry out any of the offices official functions due to being in exile in Russia. At the very least this demonstrates that the role, while it can be used to make a point, is not necessary.  If it was an essential part office of university administration, it would not be viable for the rector to never visit their university.  Even John Stuart Mill, one of the key developers of utilitarian ethics, only made his first visit to St Andrews when he came up to take office as rector and that was almost two years after he was elected.  While this was in a time before the internet — or aeroplanes — existed, it only serves to reinforce the fact that the role is merely a ceremonial one.

That being said, the rector does (at least!) two things of importance for the University.  Firstly, when the Rector takes an active role in carrying out their duties as Catherine Stihler has done to great effect, then the role provides an excellent channel of communication for students and provides an advocate for our concerns at the highest levels within the University administration.

Secondly, the role brings a varied and interesting selection of individuals to St Andrews who might not necessarily visit otherwise and gets them to take an active role in the community.  Just a quick browse at the list names on the beams in the Old Union Café confirms this; from authors such as James Barrie and Rudyard Kipling, politicians, and other individuals from all different kinds of walks of life including Fridtjof Nansen, a nobel peace prize winner, who was also an eleven-time Norwegian national skiing champion. It will be very interesting to see who is proposed for the position this year and I look forward to the election campaign with great interest.

Yet the question remains, do we need a rector?  Of course we don’t, the University would function just as well without one as with one (even if in practice getting rid of the post might require an act of parliament.)   The University Court could easily appoint someone to chair their discussions who was not elected by the students, just like what happens at many other universities around the globe. The first role of the rector, to act as a communication channel for students to the University authorities is not required because of the Student Association, whose entire existence is predicated upon the idea that it represents the students to the university.  There are many different roles on the Student representative council, meaning that there is a large level of specialism.  The sabbs even draw a salary to represent us.  In other words representing our views is a full time job, capable of employing six people full time for an entire year.  Whether or not this is actually the justifiable is a different point, but if we assume that it is, it demonstrates that we don’t need a rector.  Afterall, what can the rector realistically achieve that six full time employees can’t? And that’s before you factor in all of the other members of the Student Association councils. If we do need a rector when we have this huge system of representation already in place it is a mystery to me.  After all, the Rector is just ceremonial and the president and do ed have active roles on the University Court.    Of course there is nothing wrong with having both as  having a good rector and a student association with good leadership, can only help us



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