After this soap, your next role will be a rector

June 22, 2001

In Scottish universities, students elect the rector - a 'glorious anomaly' that often elevates celebrity above gravitas, writes Olga Wojtas.

What do Gordon Brown, Lord Kitchener, Peter Ustinov, Lord Palmerston, John Cleese and Sandy Gall have in common? They have all been Scottish university rectors.

The student-elected rector in the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews is an arcane Scottish higher education tradition. The rector has the automatic right to chair the court at the four ancient universities. At Dundee, which gained independence from St Andrews in 1967, the rector is only a member of court.

At a time of ever more commercialisation in higher education, some see the rector as a throwback. In Rectors of Glasgow University 1820-2000 , Glasgow graduate and journalist Donald Wintersgill quotes Glasgow's clerk of senate, Rex Whitehead, describing the post as "a glorious anomaly that explodes the business metaphor". He asks: "What commercial organisation would allow the chairman of its board to be elected by the customers?" In 1997, the Dearing inquiry's Scottish arm proposed that the rector remain as a student spokesperson but lose the right to chair court. The government rejected the idea.

Wintersgill notes that the era of the predominantly political rector gave way in the 1970s to the celebrity. Over the years, St Andrews has had the keenest eye for celebrity - it elected Marconi, polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen and Kipling between the wars. It has also had a startling choice in political nominees: Mussolini was among the 1928 nominations.

The trend now is towards entertainers and media personalities such as Nicholas Parsons, Tony Slattery and Muriel Gray. The current rectors are celebrity chef Clarissa Dickson Wright (Aberdeen), radio presenter and comedian Fred MacAulay (Dundee), Green MSP Robin Harper (Edinburgh, see below), Chewin' the Fat star Greg Hemphill (Glasgow), and Andrew Neil, publisher and editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications (St Andrews). "More and more students are starting to ignore party politics," says Marilyn Croser, president of Glasgow's students' representative council. "They're looking for someone a bit more dynamic and exciting. Politicians are seen as bland and dour."

David Cunningham, president of Dundee's students' association, thinks this is more shrewdness than dumbing down. "It's about how much press coverage people can get. The local MP or MSP would unquestionably do a good job, but would they have the pull of a big celebrity?" Celebrity, however, is a double-edged sword. Institutions can become embroiled in their rectors' external escapades, as with Stephen Fry at Dundee (see box). But some celebrities have proved a superb asset: One Foot in the Grave star Richard Wilson was a tireless champion, chairing court, helping raise funds for a medical building and visiting schools in poor areas to urge pupils to consider higher education. Others, such as Ross Kemp (inset) at Glasgow and Slattery at Dundee, have shown scant interest in the role.

Simon Varwell, president of Aberdeen's students' representative council, says: "A Ross Kemp adds weight to the argument that you undermine the role of rector by trivialising it. But the pendulum swings back with a Clarissa Dickson Wright." She has been a key fundraiser to help the rugby club tour Australia, and she often mentions the university in her Scotland on Sunday column, "which is read by several thousand prospective students and their parents".

Cunningham defends the rector's role in court as demonstrating "a commitment to ensure that universities remain student-focused". Croser says a rector can bring an impartial, external view to the discussions.

Today's rectors all seem to take their jobs seriously, and perhaps the Kemp and Slattery experiences have led students to be more careful about whom they elect.

In nominations, however, Croser says few students consider how a candidate might represent them. "They're thinking of someone who will be interesting when they appear." Kev Head, vice-president of St Andrews' student association, says there are students who nominate someone they think will do a good job, those who nominate someone they would like to meet, and those who nominate someone "for a bit of fun" - as only 20 signatures are necessary, the process is "quite open".

Dundee's most recent candidates included a student's pet rat (nomination invalidated because the nominee had not signed the form) and Baywatch star David Hasselhoff (who turned down the nomination).

Rectors of Glasgow University 1820-2000 , by Donald Wintersgill, £12.00, is available from Glasgow University visitor centre.


Sir Alexander Fleming Edinburgh University 1951

Having been elected rector, the Scots-born discoverer of penicillin admitted that he had never before been to a Scottish university, and he was nervous because rectorial installations could be boisterous. When students disrupted his address, Edinburgh's establishment condemned the "scandalous buffoonery and rudeness". Fleming sighed: "It seems a pity that one should take so much trouble to prepare an address that is not listened to. There is a well-known saying about pearls and swine."

Ross Kemp Glasgow University 1999

Students forced out Ross Kemp, who played hardman Grant Mitchell in the TV soap East-Enders , after a poor record that included missing the freshers' week address two years running. He defended his record as being "better than Winnie Mandela's": she was elected in 1987 as a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement and was prevented by the South African government from coming to Glasgow.

Stephen Fry Dundee University 1992 and 1995

The actor and entertainer proved an able and popular choice, generous with his time and money. He held student surgeries, supported a rents protest and praised the Scottish education system. He was persuaded to stand unopposed for a second term. After he was quoted as admitting to having taken Ecstasy, the university and the students rebuffed external demands for Fry's resignation. His comments coincided with the start of a national student drugs awareness campaign.

Dundee said it took a tolerant view of rectors' "colourful and individualistic views on the world" without necessarily sharing them.

Edinburgh's Green man

Robin Harper, rector of Edinburgh University, is unusual in being a politician, but he is also an unusual politician.

The Scottish Green Party MSP, often seen in a multicoloured Doctor Who scarf and black hat, is the UK's first Green parliamentarian. He was on an anti-nuclear protest when the university phoned to say he was the sole nominee for the post. "I could have been the first rector to be arrested. I might still achieve that distinction," he says.

A former musician and teacher who is now a member of Lothian Health Council and Lothian Children's Panel, Harper is not fazed by chairing the university court. "I think it's important for the ultimate court of appeal for the university to have an independent chair."

Only Edinburgh's rector is elected by students and staff, and Harper sees both as his constituents. His style is persuasion rather than confrontation. He has proved adept at attracting positive publicity for the university when he represents it, and has used his post to fight the stigma surrounding mental health.

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