#LoveHE: A spot of juggling

Olympic sportsman, practising lawyer and Lib Dem leader, Menzies Campbell puts it all down to his time at university

July 22, 2010

I've led three rather fulfilling lives - one was international sport, another was practice of the law, and the third was becoming an MP and leading my party - and you can relate all of these directly to access to higher education.

I was born, went to school and went to university all within a short distance of one another. I went to the University of Glasgow for six years. I took an MA, what we called an ordinary MA - a general degree in arts - and then an LLB.

Some people travelled substantial distances to university, but I just walked up the road for about 15 minutes. It meant your independence was somewhat restricted: my parents weren't particularly strict but as good Scots they thought respectable people shouldn't be out after midnight on a Saturday. If I'd come home reeking of beer there would have been trouble. On the other hand, you could take a full part in university life without having to worry about the last bus home. Of course, the great advantage was home cooking and getting your washing done!

My principal activity at university was track and field; I was an international athlete and ran in the Olympic Games. I had run for Scottish schools teams, but it was university that allowed me to concentrate to the extent that I became an Olympic athlete.

There was very good inter-university competition at that time and athletics was very, very strong. We ran on grass tracks to begin with - rather more Eric Liddell than Linford Christie - but in my time the University of Glasgow leapt ahead of everyone else and built a cinder track, which meant it had facilities superior to those at any other higher education institution in Scotland.

Although I told my father academic study came first, it was often, in fact, athletics. It was not possible to graduate in arts without taking a science subject. The science subject I chose was botany because it had laboratory sessions in the morning so that in the afternoon I could go training. At one point they tried to shunt the arts students into the afternoon, but I got the head of the PE department to tell the professor I had the potential to be a member of the Scottish Commonwealth Games team and please could I have my laboratories in the morning, which was agreed.

By 1964, when I competed in the Olympic Games, I was doing a part-time law degree, a law apprenticeship, was president of the university union, and had a girlfriend - so there was a lot of juggling that went on.

Sport, and track and field in particular, has become a full-time professional activity now. But as chancellor of the University of St Andrews, I am well aware that universities have also become more professional. I remember we had a lecturer who simply read us the contents of a particular book he'd bought. We were smart enough to get copies of the book and you could sit in the lecture, or rather not sit in the lecture, and follow him word for word. You wouldn't get away with that now.

My eldest grandson has gone to the University of Aberdeen to read law, and I have the impression he's working his socks off. I know that he hasn't had the slightly indulgent time we had - sometimes sitting around for hours drinking coffee and putting the world to rights. We didn't have continuous assessment, and there were rarely assignments - it was all a mad scramble to pass the end-of-year exams.

Some of the indulgence of university life has been squeezed out. It's also infinitely more difficult to get into universities. St Andrews gets 11 applications for every undergraduate place. Everyone who is capable of going to university ought to have a chance to do so, but I accept that there are some big political and financial assumptions behind that.

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