Michael Kelly: Let students pick their own rectors

St Andrews students in their famous red gowns. Picture: Jane Barlow
St Andrews students in their famous red gowns. Picture: Jane Barlow
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WE might not agree with the choices made, but universities should resist interference in elections from outside, writes Michael Kelly

The wider debate on the governance of our universities in order to introduce greater openness and accountability has, for the moment, narrowed to an argument over the role of the rectors in our older institutions and the idea of introducing a similar post to newer bodies of higher learning. The debate over rectors is a good proxy for the wider issue.

From the early days of our four ancient universities, the rector was the person who imposed the law of the land on university staff and students. He had the power to sentence miscreants to death, which emphasises the autonomy these institutions used to enjoy.

The post is the only one in universities to be subject to a democratic election as the student body chooses the rector, now seen mainly as the defender of students’ interests.

However, from time to time the students have been prepared to sacrifice the representation on the University Court, its highest governing body, that a rector gives them to make a political point. Thus, in 1962, students in Glasgow elected Chief Albert Luthuli as a protest against apartheid, and Winnie Mandela in 1987 to show support for the same cause.

But, as you would expect with students, they also elected people just for a laugh. This is not to demean those who took office and carried out their duties responsibly, but it was the minor celebrity status of Arthur Montford, Reginald Bosanquet, Richard Wilson and Ross Kemp, among others, which gained them votes rather than any obvious qualifications or experience. In my election for rector at Glasgow, I was run closest not by Yasser Arafat, or Menzies Campbell or even Jeffrey Archer, but by Rikki Fulton.

So the dignity and gravitas of the office may be somewhat exaggerated, and those who now want to remove the statutory right of rectors to chair meetings of university courts will have specific bad experiences forming their view. Certainly, it seems to have been a bone of contention among principals for some time. At my first court meeting, the principal offered to take the chair for me. Jimmy Reid, another former rector, told me that the same offer had been made to him. Both of us, experienced politicians and well aware of the power the chair bestows, politely declined.

However, as someone who has experienced university life from three points of view – student, lecturer and rector – I can understand the deep concerns of those wary of introducing more amateur interference from the outside. Our oldest universities have evolved their governance models over 500 years. From their point of view, defining more clearly the role of rector might lead to more acceptable choices. However, it cannot be for the authorities, university or government, to restrict the choices students might want to make, however frivolous they might be.

Universities are, or should be, elite places. They are staffed by highly intelligent individuals who are expert in their own disciplines. Much of the work done in Scotland is of international quality. For universities to continue to produce high-class research and turn out graduates who can challenge those of other countries, a great degree of autonomy must be granted to them.

Just as the press oppose statutory regulation, universities must resist political interference, particularly from those with agendas for social engineering. While all those who can handle a university education must be recruited whatever their background, standards cannot be allowed to be lowered to fit other social goals. Politically incorrect as it may seem, it must be recognised that there is a limited percentage of any population that has the intelligence to pass honours level examinations.

On the other hand, the state contributes major funding to our universities, which therefore must be open and accountable. That’s part of good management. The problem is that academics are not necessarily the best managers. Their abilities and training have sent them on a different career path before, in their later professional lives, they are asked to run complex multi-million pound enterprises. Just as the NHS has benefited from the introduction of professional managers, which has allowed the medical staff to get on with doctoring, so our institutes of higher education could reap rewards in terms of cost-cutting, income generation and overall greater efficiency if they were managed in this way. Maybe this, rather than pondering over codes of governance, is the way to get the best out of academia.

In my experience, most students are not interested in the running of their university. I wouldn’t let them near remunerations committees, as has been proposed by education secretary Michael Russell. Despite ministers’ obvious anger at their pay levels, I regard it as a positive sign of universities acknowledging the realities of the market place that, according to one report, 88 university employees earn more than the First Minister. The First Minister can’t go and lead Congress, while many academics in our universities would be welcomed by the Ivy League. Comparing academic salaries with those of a politician is the wrong comparison. They should be compared with their peers internationally.

And more than half of university funding comes from sources other than the public purse. Unlike students, university staffs do want a say in how things are run and do so now through departmental, school, faculty and other committees. Sometimes it’s bureaucracy gone mad.

Allowing staff representatives to be elected to courts through trade unions and other methods would be a progressive step. But that’s enough democracy. One person, one vote has no more validity in running an academic institution than it has in a religion or multinational corporation. If there is any organisation in which a dictatorial philosopher king could be tolerated, it is surely a university.