MP says he is ‘disappointed but not surprised’ at claim Lady Rae is an ‘absentee rector’

John Nicolson finished as runner up to Lady Rae to become rector in 2021


An MP who stood against Lady Rita Rae to become Glasgow University’s rector in 2021 has described claims she is an “absentee rector” as “very disappointing but not surprising”.

Speaking to the Glasgow Tab, John Nicolson MP, who lost to Lady Rae by a margin of 145 votes in April 2021, said he was “disappointed that the students feel let down” and stressed the importance of the role as “often the last port of call” for students to get help.

In a wide ranging interview, he criticised the structure of the role at Glasgow University, saying: “I’ve watched loads of rectors over the years not do the job properly”, and called for students to be given the opportunity to recall the rector.

This follows claims made by The Glasgow Guardian that Lady Rae has missed a third of the university court meetings since she became elected. On the two occasions she did go, she had no “substantiative items to raise” and has not yet hosted a student surgery in the past academic year.

John Nicolson told The Glasgow Tab: “It’s very disappointing. But not surprising. Folk don’t understand how much work is involved in being a good rector.

“It’s a very important job. But it’s also a time consuming job if done properly, and it’s a difficult job.”

Lady Rita Rae, a 72-year-old senior judge, is the second female rector in the history of the university.

Defending herself against claims she’s “gone missing”, Lady Rae told The Times: “This really saddened me because of the amount of work I have been doing which I do not publicise. The Glasgow Guardian seems to believe I ought to publicise what I’m doing. I will not do so and have made it clear to everyone I do not seek headlines.”

John Nicolson, who is MP for Ochil and South Perthshire and was previously a journalist and broadcaster suggested that he had early concerns over Lady Rae’s appointment as rector.

“I wasn’t at all clear from her campaign what it was that Lady Rae did. What were her beliefs? They all seemed very opaque.

“I ended up campaigning not really knowing what Lady Rae stood for particularly, but I was disappointed by the fact that she promised to work hard and I’m disappointed that students feel let down.”

Whilst Nicolson’s campaign was unsuccessful in 2021, if elected he had vowed to “have an office at the university”, holding regular surgeries and ensuring he could take time out of parliament to be physically present in meetings.

“I thought long and hard about running because I didn’t want to be a disappointment. I only did it after I had thought carefully about whether I could manage it,” he said.

Elected every three years, the rector is one of the most senior roles at Glasgow University. The SRC’s website claims “the main role of the rector is to represent the University’s students”.

“They are expected to attend meetings of Court, the governing body of the University, and to work closely with the SRC in order to aid in bringing student concerns to the attention of the University’s managers.”

Nicolson went on to suggest there are some key pitfalls to the university’s system, where students are inclined to vote for celebrities and public figures who may not work in student interest.

“The problem with all this rector business is by the time the next rectoral election comes along the students who have learned from this business will have left the university and a whole new generation of students will hear the same arguments all over again.

“They will make the same decisions, and even sometimes the same mistakes.”

The MP suggested to The Glasgow Tab, the position should be held for two years rather than three. He explained, if students are able to experience a rector failing to do their job, they can learn from this and make a more informed decision the second time they vote.

He also argued that the university should introduce a means of recalling the rector via petition. This would allow students to force a rector who they deem unfit or absent out of the position before the three year period is up.

When asked if he would run again, Nicolson declined.

A spokesperson for the University of Glasgow said: “Lady Rae is an active and highly valued member of the university court and the student experience committee.

“As rector she has raised issues which are important to the student body as a whole, and is in regular contact with individual students who seek her advice and support.”

Lady Rae has been approached for comment. 

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