Q&A with Catherine Stihler

We speak to only the second woman to have held the post of rector of the University of St Andrews

December 4, 2014

In October, Labour politician Catherine Stihler – the only female member of the European Parliament representing Scotland – was named rector of the University of St Andrews, her alma mater. She is only the second woman to have held the post.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Bellshill [North Lanarkshire] in 1973 and brought up in Moodiesburn and Wishaw. I enjoyed a fantastic, traditional education. One of my primary school teachers, Mrs Crawford, who recently passed away, was a great influence on my life. She was a German refugee who escaped Russian-controlled Berlin and ended up living and teaching in Scotland. She taught me the value of hard work and the resilience of the human spirit, and she also demonstrated the beauty of the German language. I can still sing Stille Nacht.

How has your background shaped you?
The 1970s were challenging times. My parents, who were teachers, taught me the importance of education not just to me personally but to society as a whole.

The rector’s role is an important one in Scottish higher education. What is its significance to you on a personal and wider level?
Twenty years ago I was elected president of the [St Andrews] Students’ Association and served on university court. Today I have been called to serve the student community again but in a different and new way. The opportunity to re-engage with a new student community who are energetic, enthusiastic and committed to public service is wonderful.

You are only the second woman to hold this position at St Andrews. What should be done to improve women’s representation at senior levels in society?
Affordable wrap-around childcare and sharing caring responsibilities between men and women equally. I couldn’t be rector without the support of my husband and parents.

Why did you feel it was important for Scotland to stay in the Union, both generally and from a higher education perspective?
We are part of a global international world and pooling and sharing resources across 70 million people is better than pooling and sharing risk across 5 million people. To come out of the UK would have been a disaster for Scotland’s research community, as it would have meant we would no longer have had access to UK funds. Because we would no longer have been part of the European Union, we would have been starved of EU research funding.

Do you share Nicola Sturgeon’s view that we will see an independent Scotland one day?
No. We have just had a referendum and the people of Scotland have rejected independence. The First Minister has said she will govern for all of Scotland. I hope this includes people like me who have rejected independence.

Do politicians and academics work with each other enough?
There needs to be more dialogue and reflection. Politics is so much about immediacy and fire-fighting, with thinking about the real challenges facing our world taking secondary consideration. We need all politicians to have the space to think and reflect on the challenges we face, from ageing and loneliness to climate change and food security.

What do you think is the most pressing policy concern for the UK government?
British exit (Brexit) of the EU by default.

What has changed most in higher education in the past five to 10 years?
Technology, expectations and parental involvement in students’ lives and with the university directly.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Stop worrying and live your life. It only happens once.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best: being part of the most successful peace process the world has known, where I change for the better the lives of 500 million people in the EU. The worst: being away from home and family every week.

What do you do for fun?
Play tennis with my husband and watch Disney films with my kids.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Worked and played hard – never missed a deadline.

What was your proudest achievement leading the University of St Andrews Students’ Association?
Standing up for more women academics; 20 years later we have our first female principal and second female rector.

If you were universities minister for a day, what policy would you introduce?
Strict new rules on the private rented accommodation sector to ensure that no student lives in damp accommodation that directly impacts on their health.

john.elmes@tesglobal.com

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