Aberdeen's rude awakening

February 10, 1995

When James IV of Scotland applied to Pope Alexander VI to set up a university in Aberdeen, the foundation Bull the pope issued in response was enthusiastic.

The proposed university's catchment area contained "men who are rude, ignorant of letters and almost barbarous, and who, on account of the over great distance from the places in which universities flourish, and the dangerous passage to such places, cannot have leisure for the study of letters." With wider access to higher education, "the ignorant would be informed and the rude become learned".

Today is founder's day, commemorating William Elphinstone, Bishop of Aberdeen, who duly established the university in 1495, and the quincentenary is being marked by the first of a series of special graduation ceremonies.

Honorary degrees are today being conferred on Bishop Elphinstone's spiritual successors, Cardinal Pio Laghi, prefect of the congregation for Catholic education, James Simpson, moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, Richard Holloway, primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and Prince Charles.

Honorary graduates later in the year include Boutros Boutros Ghali, the secretary general of the United Nations, opera singer Jessye Norman, writer Muriel Spark, and history professor Princess Maha Sirindhorn of Thailand. The calendar is packed with glittering receptions, graduate reunions, and international academic meetings such as the Association of Commonwealth Universities and the Conference of European Rectors.

Such events tend to attract much more lavish national support in other European and Commonwealth countries: while funds have come from the city of Aberdeen and the local enterprise company, much of the sponsorship is from overseas. But these international links are not surprising, given Aberdeen's history. "Longevity is not itself worthy of great celebration," says Maxwell Irvine, the university's principal. "But the impact on the world of Aberdeen, and indeed all four ancient Scottish universities, has been staggering."

Aberdeen graduates are responsible for founding the College of William and Mary in the United States, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Toronto, the Japanese Imperial Navy, the Maryland Bar Association, the National Museum of India, medical schools throughout the Commonwealth, and the clocking-in system.

Celebrations are being held on five continents, and there is an international link for amateur radio users, call sign GB 500 AU. Scotland's contribution includes a parachute jump by 500 students; a graduate, student or staff member on the peak of each Munro (the 7 Scottish mountains over 3,000 feet) at midsummer; creative writing workshops; and the planting of 30,000 tulip bulbs by primary school children.

Musical works have been commissioned, a 20-year-old malt has been produced, a university tartan created, and a minor planet will be named Aberdonia.

The celebrations are a welcome change from the turbulence of the 1980s, when the impact of front-loaded cuts led Aberdeen to be the only university to be given deficit funding by the University Grants Committee.

But the quincentenary provides a reassuring perspective for Professor Irvine. "One of the nice things about being principal of a 500-year-old institution is that however black things look on a particular day, there have been blacker periods in the past.'' One of the blacker days was when Oliver Cromwell deposed the principal and put in his own choice, although according to contemporary opinion the new incumbent was one of the most successful and innovative university heads. Another was in 1715, when all the senior management were sacked for taking the wrong side in the Jacobite uprising.

Universities have got into difficulties this century by becoming more and more dependent on a single funding source, central government, says Professor Irvine, and a key element of the quincentenary is a Pounds 25 million appeal, which has already raised Pounds 11 million. The three largest projects to benefit will be Aberdeen's new institute of medical sciences; the Elphinstone Institute, studying the history and culture of north and north-east Scotland; and student support. Aberdeen aims to strengthen its bursaries and scholarships, as well as setting up new welfare, sports and social funds. "We're very poor in this country about providing for students other than through the state system," says Professor Irvine.

The university already raises more than Pounds 20 million externally each year, which Professor Irvine says is increasingly important as central government support fails to keep pace with higher education expansion.

"Funds raised by the quincentenary appeal will give the university the increased profile and level of activity that it needs to increase its external funding to a target of Pounds 30 million a year."

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