Executive keeps its hands off rectorship

Despite sometimes bizarre choices, 500 years of Scottish university tradition will go unchanged

WHEN the Roman Catholic Church established the four ancient universities in Scotland, a papal bull decreed that rectors should be a central part of the constitutions of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Glasgow.

Six centuries later, the churchmen might be surprised to see the colourful collection of entertainers, politicians - and occasionally rodents - put forward for office.

The failure of EastEnders actor Ross Kemp to meet the requirements of Glasgow students - and the efforts at one university to elect a hamster - have led to concerns that the historic office has become somewhat demeaned.

In last year’s review of higher education, the Executive noted the "strength of feeling on both sides" about rectors - and passed the issue to a parliamentary committee to consider.

Although many celebrity rectors have worked tirelessly - Muriel Gray at Edinburgh and Clarissa Dickson Wright at Aberdeen (its first female rector in more than 500 years) have won plaudits from students - the elections have often come down to a fight between students’ celebrity favourites.

Some university principals have privately come to view the poll every three years as a form of Russian roulette, often asking: "Who the hell are the students going to lumber us with this time?" Concern reached a peak when students at Dundee (originally part of St Andrews University) put forward a hamster. The candidate - whose consent was secured for the nomination form with the help of his paw and a pad of ink - was eventually disbarred when it was argued that it could not be guaranteed the "signature" had not been secured under duress

To senior university staff, rectorial elections are more than a colourful tradition. As well as acting as an informal ombudsman to take up students’ concerns, rectors chair the university court, the governing body making all major decisions about strategies and hundreds of millions of pounds.

In 1997 Brian Wilson, then education minister, rejected a recommendation in the official report resulting from the Garrick inquiry into Scottish higher education, that rectors lose their automatic right to chair university governing bodies. He said: "I regard the role of the rector in our universities as being a valuable safeguard as a representative of students and an important part of the Scottish educational tradition."

Now the second attempt to restrict rectors’ powers appears to have been defeated - despite Scottish Executive pressure on higher education institutions to modernise management structures and practices for the 21st century. Passing the matter to a committee, the Executive said: "If any changes are to be considered to this uniquely Scottish arrangement, then including this in any parliamentary committee inquiry would provide the most appropriate forum for that debate. The Executive does not have a view on whether the current arrangements need to change and recognises strength of feeling on both sides."

The Enterprise and Lifelong Learning committee was asked to incorporate the issue into an inquiry into governance. However, current members of the committee have no immediate plans to examine how universities are governed. Alasdair Morgan, the convener, said: "I can see the arguments on both sides on whether rectors should just be figureheads. Part of the problem is that the committee has a huge remit; there are no immediate plans to look at this but it is always open to committee members to raise it."

Andrew Neil, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications Ltd and rector of St Andrews University between 1999 and 2002, said: "The position of rector is something unique to Scotland’s ancient Universities and it should not be tampered with and it works very well. If the students elect somebody sensible, then they have a really powerful figure at the heart of university governing - if they elect somebody stupid they don’t, but then that’s up to them. It works, but when a rector has proved not to be up to it all universities have always managed to get round it. No rector has caused serious damage to a university and a number of them have done great good."

One insider insisted that university angst about rectors is exaggerated. "The last thing most want is full responsibility for a university’s affairs and in any case, the secretaries to the court make sure they don’t muck things up." A second source added: "Whatever their day jobs, most rectors are not complete fruitcakes."

Changing styles to fit a unique role in Scotland’s academia

SCOTLAND’S four ancient universities - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and St Andrews - and later, Dundee, are unique in Britain for having rectors. He or (far less often) she is responsible for managing university affairs, and has the automatic right to chair the court at the four oldest institutions.

Edinburgh rectors have had a more political bent - the present incumbent is Tam Dalyell, while Gordon Brown was the only candidate at the university elected while still a student. He won through after several years of fierce politicking that saw the removal of Malcolm Muggeridge. Sir Alexander Fleming, when elected Edinburgh rector in 1951, admitted he had never been to a Scottish university and was nervous about doing so because installations could be boisterous. When students disrupted his address, Edinburgh’s establishment condemned the "scandalous buffoonery and rudeness".

St Andrews elected Rudyard Kipling and Guglielmo Marconi, widely-credited as the pioneer of radio, between the wars, but the recent trend is towards media personalities like John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor (St Andrews), Tony Slattery (Dundee) and Richard Wilson (Glasgow). Rectors have also included presenter and comic Fred MacAulay, (Dundee), TV presenter Johnny Ball (Glasgow), quiz show host Nicholas Parsons (St Andrews), and footballer John Colquhoun (Edinburgh).

Ross Kemp, elected in 1999, was forced out in Glasgow after poor attendance record (including missing his freshers’ week address two years running). Tony Slattery came under pressure to resign for allegedly shirking his Dundee responsibilities. He blamed work commitments.