A stay-at-home Rector

As you all know, the position of Rector is the highest position in the University Court for which students can vote for their chosen representative. It is an office of […]

As you all know, the position of Rector is the highest position in the University Court for which students can vote for their chosen representative. It is an office of considerable power and influence within the higher elections of the University board, and the only position through which students can truly have their voices heard. As a result, there have been attempts in the past to curb the influence of this role, and some have even called for the office to be abolished outright. Ah, those goddamn students, always meddling in University Court affairs…


It is interesting then to discover that one of the candidates currently running for Rector, namely Michael Forsyth – or rather ‘Baron Forsyth of Drumlean’ to us gawping plebs – was sympathetic to this view.


As Scottish Education Minister in 1989, Forsyth, according to the Scottish Herald, while not opposed necessarily to the position of Rector itself, supported a cabinet move to significantly curb the influence of Rectors of Scottish universities who could not adequately fulfil their roles due to lack of sufficient time commitment.  


For context, this was much to do with the fact that anti-apartheid activists at Glasgow University had voted Winnie Mandela in 1987 to act as rector while fully understanding that she would be unable to carry out her duties in that position.


Forsyth, who spends much of his time in London due to his lordly engagements, assured students at the Rectorial debate on Tuesday 25th October that if elected, he would be in St Andrews once a month for consultations with the student and university body.


This was of course, said through his representative at the debate, Douglas Hallstrom, as Baron Forsyth was unable to attend as he was otherwise occupied in London.  Not to worry though, since his representative assured us that Forsyth would indeed be able to carry out much of his Rectorial duties while working away from St Andrews.


Surely this raises a few issues over his ability to fulfil the role of a working rector.


Does he honestly believe that he can truly represent the student body of St Andrews as Rector when he only ever graces these cobbled streets once a month? Twenty two years is a long time, and a time over which one’s mind and perspectives can change, but it certainly does seem as though Forsyth’s younger self just over two decades ago would have been in favour then of curbing his own power as Rector if elected.


And yet, as the Baron states in his interview with Alasdair Clarkson of the stand, he holds a principle that if elected Rector, he will not cancel prior engagements that he has already arranged if something comes up. I wonder if St Andrews will appear in his diary more than just once a month. Politicians these days… always flitting from one view to another.


If Forsyth were to have made a clearer desire to be a ‘working Rector’ like the other candidates then he would be more suitable to the role. His impressive background in both the financial and political world certainly bolsters his credentials as a candidate. His philanthropic work suggests he would be able to raise funds successfully for the University in these austere and uncertain economic times.  But if voted, will he be able to represent the true student voice to the University Court from the House of Lords in London (these political fossils are usually sleeping from utter boredom in the backbenches anyway) or perhaps, as a climbing enthusiast, from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro?


I remain unconvinced.


The Rector needs to be fully engaged with students, holding regular surgeries and meetings with the student body to find out what needs changing within the University. To be Rector, one needs to be in St Andrews regularly – not necessarily a resident – but ultimately be accessible to students.


The position of rector is unique within Scotland because of its accountability to students, challenging unpopular decisions of the University Board by presenting the views of students as a whole. In 1989, Forsyth would have agreed that to hold this position without the capacity to fulfil the duties that come with it makes the position of Rector somewhat redundant.  Yet he himself is the candidate who could not fulfil the role of Rector in an appropriate or engaged manner.


Honestly, what would his younger self have made of this?



Written by Patrick Soulsby, standpoint writer