Willie Rennie is no stranger to St Andrews. In fact the first time this interviewer met him was during a canvassing session for his 2016 campaign to represent the town in the Scottish parliament. Mr Rennie now represents St Andrews along with the rest of North East Fife in Holyrood, in addition to his role as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
The Saint is interviewing him to examine his latest endeavour – his fight to be the 53rd Rector of the University of St Andrews. Elected by students, the Rector’s duty is to represent their interests on the University court, the highest governing body of the institution.
Following two referenda, two general elections, a Scottish parliamentary election and set of European and local council elections, his bid to be Rector will be his eighth campaign since becoming leader of his party in 2011 – so why does he want to do it? Why does he want to be the Rector?
“Well I’ve got great affection for the University and its students, I’ve spent the last year representing them in Holyrood, standing up for them on things like Brexit and accommodation and all the other issues around about the University,” he says when The Saint meets him in the West Port to discuss his campaign.
“I want to take it that step further and work for them and speak up for them as well,” he adds.
In his manifesto and throughout this interview, Mr Rennie emphasises his existing links to both the town and University of St Andrews, arguing it gives him the experience to effect real change for students.
“I think it’s great to make a political statement, I’ve made a few political statements in my time, but I think what students are more interested in is actually fixing problems that are right here in St Andrews,” he says.
He goes on to say, “And with all my connections with the community but also with the University, I’ve got a great chance of making a practical difference to people’s lives, so that’s what I’m about, that’s what my campaign is about, and I’m hoping that, just like Catherine Stihler [the current Rector] did, I can make a real difference to the lives of students over the time that I’m rector.”
Mr Rennie’s opponent is Srdja Popovic, a Serbian activist who helped found and lead a student movement that contributed to the dictator Miloslevic being overthrown. Mr Popovic’s manifesto and campaign has so far been based on a series of bold, radical proposals to address issues students in St Andrews face, along with a series of irreverent memes supporting his message. Is Mr Rennie worried that his campaign will seem boring and unimaginative next to Mr Popovic’s populist pitch?
“It’ll be different, I’ve had a bit of fun during elections myself, so it’s not alien to me, but the practical reality to me is that Catherine Stihler’s method, her approach over the past few years has been quite effective at making real change,” he says.
Going on, he adds, “I don’t just want to have slogans, I want to have a practical agenda that will make people’s lives better. And I think I can do that from being here on the ground, working with students, that’s what I want to try and achieve.
“So yeah some of it makes you laugh, what Srdja’s done, and I admire him for that, but actually what I offer is a different kind of Rector from what he’s going to offer and I’m not going to undermine his campaign, he’s going to fight it in his way but I’m going to be here, and I’m going to be with students – fighting for them.”
I don’t just want to have slogans, I want to have a practical agenda that will make people’s lives better
Mr Rennie does however rebuff the idea that his platform is not radical enough, “I think it’s a difference in approach rather than aspiration or ambition – because you’ll find it difficult to find anyone who’s got more ambition for the town or for the students than I have.
“But it’s whether you want someone who’s going to shout through a megaphone or someone who’s actually going to talk and make a difference, and if you want someone who talks and makes a difference, then come with me.”
When asked whether his stronger ties to St Andrews gives him an advantage over Mr Popopvic, Mr Rennie says yes.
“I think for the type of Rector I want to be, it does give me an advantage,” he says.
He continues, “that doesn’t mean that Srdja’s proposition is any weaker for that because he’s trying to be a different type of Rector, so yes, it’s essential for what I want to try and do, which is make a practical difference, and you know, I’ll be here, working with students, on almost a weekly basis to make sure that happens.”
Mr Popovic has made lobbying for affordable accommodation for students a central plank of his manifesto, but Mr Rennie says that the issue would also be one of the most important for his rectorship, and argues he has the experience to improve the situation.
“I think the real, practical thing that we need to do is to increase the supply within St Andrews, there needs to be more affordable accommodation,” he says.
He goes on to add, “now there are practical steps that you need to take to make that happen, working in partnership with the council, the University, making sure the proper initiatives are on time, making sure the regulatory arrangements within Holyrood and within the council are there to make that happen too.
“I understand the landscape, we’ve got particular issues around planning, we’ve got an issue around the Housing Act that potentially undermines the tourist accommodation which would then have a knock on effect to the student accommodation.”
He also condemns the HMO ban, saying it “isn’t the answer” and adding, “because the answer has got to be to increase the supply.
“So I understand that that complex set of arrangements here is really important to try and deploy change, so the ultimate answer is to increase the supply and that’s what I want to try and work towards.”
Mr Rennie also argues that his links to the Scottish parliament, Fife Council and other institutions that have a direct impact on university life, will mean his rectorship will be able to have a significant impact, saying that “It’ll be more than just a megaphone.”
He goes on to add, “It’ll be practically working in the institutions to make a difference. I’m already representing students, I think I can take it to a new level by having that direct access within the University’s institutions, and speaking as a direct voice for the University’s students – I think I can add real value to the post, using the connections that I’ve already got. So it’s very practical, pragmatic changes for students. I think, I’ve used a few slogans in my time, but it’s actually making a difference that matters.”
While Mr Rennie emphasises pragmatism and working to achieve practical change, there is one issue where he and the Scottish Liberal Democrats that he leads have taken a (hard-line,) uncompromising position – Brexit. At the 2017 general election his party campaigned on a pledge to hold a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal with EU.
I think, I’ve used a few slogans in my time, but it’s actually making a difference that matters
Mr Rennie defended his and his party’s firm stance on the issue.
“I mean St Andrews is on the front line of this,” he says, before going on to add, “You’ve got 20 per cent of the income for research comes from Europe, 20 per cent of the staff comes from Europe and about over 10 per cent of the students, come from Europe, so if there’s a really ill wind that blows as a result of Brexit, it’s going to be felt right here in St Andrews on the North Sea.”
Mr Rennie continues, “There’s going to be a huge impact unless we have the proper steps in place to protect it. So I think this is where the Brexit battle is going to be fought, to make sure that what is one of the best universities in the world is fully protected so that we can continue to be the best in the world.”
Undeniably passionate about this issue, Mr Rennie lists the many problems associated with Brexit and universities that he believes the next Rector will be need to tackle.
“Making sure that European students, if we do leave, which I hope we don’t, but if we do leave, what role do European students have here,” he says.
He goes on to say, “I presume that the Scottish government won’t pay for their fees anymore, what happens to that money, does it stay in St Andrews so that we can use it to try benefit from this advantage to students? So that we can increase the diversity in the University? Is that an option, is that something the Scottish government is thinking of? I need to be there making that case.
He particularly emphasises the importance of research in St Andrews, “Are we going to be part of the European research area going forward, so that St Andrews can continue to excel in the European research front? That is to me, an essential element. Otherwise, that 20 per cent funding, is not guaranteed to come back to St Andrews directly. What is international collaboration going to look like, what are the funding levels going to look like, are the staff going to follow?”
Continuing, he adds, “All these things are critical for St Andrews, probably more than any other university in the whole of Scotland, maybe the United Kingdom, you’re at the forefront and if there is an ill wind that comes, St Andrews will feel it, and you need somebody there arguing, who understands the landscape, again, making a practical difference, and I’ll work with the university to make sure that happens.”
While clearly ready to fight the potential negative effects of Brexit on St Andrews, Mr Rennie also says he has two other key priorities for his Rectorship in addition to that and affordable accommodation.
He cites ensuring St Andrews is as inclusive as possible as one of these goals,saying that we need to “make sure that St Andrews is seen as a place for everyone to come to, if you make the mark, if you’ve got the ability, you should come here.
He goes on to add, “You shouldn’t think it’s for somebody else, it’s for everyone. I actually find that St Andrews is a very inclusive place, but that the perception is sometimes otherwise.”
Mr Rennie also says he is ardent about the need to improve provision of mental health services for students, an issue which he has also spent much time campaigning on as North East Fife MSP and Scottish Liberal Democrat leader.
“Mental health is almost an obsession of mine, because it’s often people who can’t speak for themselves and need some additional support. So making sure we get mental health support services up there with the best is fully something I’d support.”
Ultimately, Mr Rennie’s pitch to be Rector is based on a hope that students will choose his support of “pragmatic, practical” solutions for issues over the more radical proposals of Mr Popovic.
As our interview concludes, Mr Rennie lays out his final stall, saying, “If you want your life to be improved, if you want practical changes to actually happen, if you want somebody who’s here on the ground, got the presence, working with you to solve problems. If you want somebody who’s focused on mental health, on improving diversity, on making it a fairer place to study, then you need to back me as that option. I’m into talking, not through a megaphone, but around a table, and that’s the difference you’ll get with me.”