Rector is upbeat in the face of apathy

May 20, 2005

Winston Churchill, Gordon Brown and John Cleese have all served as rector in one of Scotland's four ancient universities, lending their considerable talents to fight the corner of students on the institutions' governing bodies.

But apathy among students to vote or even nominate candidates at Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews universities is prompting concerns that the role - which comes with the automatic right to chair university council - might become redundant.

Robin Harper, the UK's first Green parliamentarian, was last week elected rector of Aberdeen, in a contest against Hamish Mackay, a local media consultant.

But Mr Harper is in charge of Aberdeen's supreme governing body on the basis of only 326 votes. Only 531 (4 per cent) of Aberdeen's more than 13,000-strong student body voted in the poll, which was delayed by five months because of an initial lack of nominations. Mr Harper, leader of the Scottish Parliament's Greens, commented: "At least there was an election."

In 2000, Mr Harper was appointed rector of Edinburgh. He was the sole candidate. He agrees with Calum Mair, Aberdeen students' association vice-president, that students were suffering from election fatigue after a series of campus polls and the general election. The rectorial contest took place the day before study leave began.

Student apathy in rectorial elections is not unusual. The largest recent turnout was at St Andrews, where 29 per cent of its 6,500 students voted in an election in which broadcaster and former Liberal Democrat MP Sir Clement Freud was elected. Only about 4 per cent of Edinburgh's 20,000 students turned out to vote for Mr Harper's successor in 2003, in which MP Tam Dalyell won with 639 votes.

Glasgow's most recent rectorial election had to be postponed because students were too apathetic to nominate anyone. Last December, 9 per cent of the 20,000 students voted. The winner was Israeli whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, an absentee rector, since his dealings with foreigners are restricted.

But even when rectors are free to attend, they perform their duties with varying levels of assiduity. A previous Glasgow rector, television actor Ross Kemp, resigned after a no-confidence vote when he failed to attend freshers' events two years running.

Almost a decade ago, the Garrick committee, the Scottish arm of the Dearing inquiry, decided that the rector's right to chair the court had had its day. This was rejected by the Scottish Office without consultation, and there is no sign that universities wish to end the tradition.

Mr Harper, widely praised for his work at Edinburgh, said: "I do not think for one minute that this lack of interest (in voting) means I have no mandate to chair court."

It was in the interests of students who were active on committees that he helped represent them on the court, he said. "The most important work of rectors is off-court, anyway. I hope to do a lot for welfare, volunteering and, of course, greening the university."

An Aberdeen spokesperson said: "We would have hoped for a higher turnout.

But it is a democratic process and we look forward to working with Mr Harper. His role as chair of court is important and he will work closely with the other court members, the university and the students."

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

Aberdeen University Lord Asquith, Andrew Carnegie, Winston Churchill, Eric Linklater, John Buchan, Clarissa Dickson Wright

Edinburgh University W. E. Gladstone, Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill, Sir Alexander Fleming, Gordon Brown, Magnus Magnusson

Glasgow University W. E. Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, Raymond Poincare, Winnie Mandela, Arthur Montford, Richard Wilson

St Andrews University J. M. Barrie, Rudyard Kipling, Fridtjof Nansen, Guglielmo Marconi, John Cleese, Nicholas Parsons

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