Elections for Senior Lay Member of the University Court are taking place this November. Whilst a small minority know this and have eagerly penned the date in thick, red Sharpie on their wall planners, for the majority of readers this may be a revelation. It certainly was for me. Yet, after a frantic hour spent delving into the University website, and a few long emails, I was and am convinced that these elections are highly important. Knowing what the University Court is demonstrates why we should turn out to vote in the election.
In isolation, one may be forgiven for thinking that University Court is a place in St Andrews. We have a Dean’s Court; it would be reasonable to expect to discover a University Court tucked away in some shadowy corner of town. Were you to spend time searching for it, however, you’d be roaming the three streets of St Andrews for as long as it took before your legs gave out.
Instead, University Court holds the distinction of being the Supreme Governing Body of the University, sitting four times a year and consisting of just 23 members. Compared to other bodies involved in the running of the University, this is quite small.The University Senate – the next body down the hierarchical pyramid – has in comparison a membership of over 100, and the body to which the Senate in turn delegates business sits at 44 members.
It would not be a stretch to compare the Council in both size and duty to the Cabinet in its most basic function. Presided over by our Rector, Srdja Popovic (past leader of the Serbian student movement Otpor! and author of Blueprint for Revolution), and chaired by the Senior Governor Dame Annie Pringle (former British ambassador to both the Russian Federation and the Czech Republic), the Court has the final say on any decisions to do with University strategy and resource management, much as the United Kingdom’s Cabinet decides government policy. In other words, the Court shapes the University Strategy, and it is the Court’s role to direct the University in whatever direction it sees fit.
It is important to stress the significance of this body in the essential functioning of the University. Certain questions may arise in your mind. It’s clear to you that the Court is extremely important to student life at this University. Something changes though. Why is your first exposure to such an important body as the Court coming an entire month into the academic year, and through a student paper? You take a deep breath, lower said paper in your hands and glance around the library café, your empty bedroom, or the street corner where you have temporarily halted as your brain considers this truth.
“It is Important to stress the significance of this body”
The reality is that the Court is keen to make its workings as public to students as possible. They publish their minutes on the University website (on the ‘Minutes of University Court’ page, for those of you whose interest has been piqued). They make for interesting reading. The most recent set, from 14 June 2019, covers topics ranging from a Draft Financial Plan for the coming year, to student concerns over housing.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the Court is not devoid of student voice. A vital link connects the seemingly distant world of the University Court and the one we, the students, inhabit, and it comes in the form of our President of the Students’ Association, Jamie Rodney. The Saint asked him to explain what his role was within the Court and how it impacts the student body.
He told me that as Association President his main focus was “to make sure the student perspective is heard at the highest bodies of the University.” Mr Rodney sits on numerous committees, namely the Planning and Resources Committee (PARC) and Governance and Nominations Committee (G and N), and he attends full court meetings. During my own research into the University Court, it occurred to me that in a gathering of such impressive, important and celebrated people, it must feel difficult for a mere student to register their own opinions among the group. Mr Rodney felt a similar way and told me that it was “strange” being expected to make equal contributions to those on the Court who are at the top of their fields. He was anxious, however, to point out that it was important student representatives such as himself made sure that “student voices get heard.”
Interested in the extent to which those voices got heard, I questioned Mr Rodney on both what he had achieved so far with the University Court and what he hoped to achieve over the next year. He said that, at the last meeting, he “was pushing quite hard to ensure widening access to the University for people of all backgrounds was tied into the University strategy.” As for the coming year, he once again impressed his desire to make sure the student voice “is and remains heard at the highest levels of the University.” Specifics followed, with an aspiration to “keep student rents from increasing above the line of inflation.” Mr Rodney also noted that he was working on a paper aiming to “massively increase the size of the accommodation bursary, ”though followed that statement with an acknowledgement that the Court had still to sign off on it.
Mr Rodney’s discussion demonstrated his eagerness to show how the Court’s dealings permeated every corner of University life shone through. He listed multiple aspects of the University affected by the Court (decisions about the new Albany Park, tuition and accommodation fees, the building of student residences, preparations for “political events such as Brexit”) and summed it up simply by saying that “if there’s anything you like or dislike about St Andrews, it’s probably been funded, implemented, mitigated or impacted on by a decision made by the University Court.”Whilst this does not mean that the Court is responsible for loud seagulls and slow Market Street walkers, it is clear that University Court is a body to be utilised for the better.
The fact that elections for Senior Lay Member of University Court are taking place this November will hopefully now take on a greater significance to you than they did 1000 words ago. If not, it is probably because putting the words ‘senior’, ‘lay’ and ‘member’ together is meaningless to you. However, if you were to read the job advertisement for the position in The Sunday Times, you would have discovered that the Senior Lay Member (SLM) serves on the Court for four years and plays “a leading role in the governance of the University.” Mr Rodney noted that the SLM chairs the Court, and that taking part in the elections gives students the chance to “have an influence on the things the University does that are not directly student-facing.” These things include, according to the President of the Students’ Association, “political lobbying, philanthropic efforts, and investment and divestment in various industries.” It is not too controversial to say that the more influence students have over University Court proceedings, the better our University will be.
“The Court is keen to make its workings as public to students as possible”
It follows that Mr Rodney, and now I for that matter (armed with new knowledge about the inner workings of the University I attend), are urging for a large turnout at the November elections. We aren’t asking for slogans on placards, lines in the sand, or ten-minute silences; we in the know simply ask for a well-considered vote come November. I’d also ask that you pass on this article to a fellow student to raise awareness of such an important event as this, but fear being accused of self-promotion. Instead, on a blustery St Andrews November day, with the sun squinting through the arches of the cathedral and the waves hacking at the pier wall, do yourself a favour – delay that beach walk, gym, run, or Pret session and go and vote in an election of the utmost relevance to you, a St Andrews student.