The 500 year reunion

August 25, 1995

In Rashdall's classic study The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages we read: "Paris and Bologna are the archetypal - it might almost be said the only original universities: Paris supplied the model for the universities of masters, Bologna for the universities of students. Every later university from that day to this is in its developed form a more or less close imitation of one or the other of these two types . . ." The oldest of the Scottish universities are no exception to that general paradigm.

In October seven rectors from among the most prestigious - and most ancient - universities in Italy will hold talks in Glasgow and Edinburgh with their Scottish counterparts, members of the Committee of Scottish University Principals. Bologna (founded in 1088), Pavia (1361), Padua (1222) and Florence (1349), among others, will rub shoulders with St Andrews (1411), Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1583).

This is not, however, an exercise in vapid nostalgia and a hankering for lost causes. For the new universities will by no means be overlooked. The Italian delegation will include the rector of the University of Rome III (founded 1991) and the Scottish side will include representatives from the five newest (post-1992) universities.

At the same time, it would be wrong to deny there is an element of romance in the meeting. When the idea of trying to rekindle the once-strong historical links between the academic traditions of our two countries was suggested, the principals were attracted (and, I think, intrigued) by the thought that one university, Aberdeen, would celebrate its quincentenary in the year proposed for the meeting. Five centuries ago, the man who is credited with the founding of that distinguished seat of learning, Bishop William Elphinstone, secured the Bull from Pope Alexander VI, effectively establishing Scotland's third university.

Historically, of course, there is much more to it than that. Two of the three most ancient Scottish universities were granted their authority to license students by Papal Bulls. The founder of the University of Glasgow, Bishop William Turnbull, in common with many of the leading Scottish churchmen of his day, went to Italy (in his case, Pavia) to obtain his doctorate in canon law. At Aberdeen the emphasis on the teaching of civil (Roman) law and jurisprudence seems to have been strongly influenced by the Bologna pattern.

It is certainly no accident, then, that the system of governance preferred by the Scots was the so-called Bologna model, the chief characteristic of which was the notion of universitas as studium generale made manifest in the democratic right of the student body to elect a rector whose statutory authority in chairing the ruling body (from the 19th century termed the University Court in Scotland) survives to this day - despite, let it be said, several quite recent attempts by some courts to end the practice.

Elsewhere in Britain, which in this context means Oxford and Cambridge, the Paris tradition prevailed, which favoured governance by masters and doctors - in the United States today they would say by the "faculty" - and where the rector was primus inter pares.

Even at St Andrews - where the Paris experience of the founder, Henry Wardlaw, was clearly evident in the (unusual) form of governance preferred - the Bologna system of student election was still discernible - admittedly in a modified form.

That is the background to, and the pretext for, the meeting. But to celebrate self-indulgently our mutually glorious past is decidedly not its purpose. Though we may wonder at times - especially when we hear the more bizarre outpourings of some of our parliamentarians - we live in Europe and we are citizens of Europe. Increasingly, Europe touches our academic and cultural policies and practices just as much as it does our approach to farming, fishing and marketing.

Moreover, whether we like it or not, Europe is changing the way we organise our lives; that is certainly already the case in higher education, where mutual recognition of qualifications and "double degrees" are eagerly sought but would have been (literally) unthinkable when I was an undergraduate.

On the other hand, no sensible commentator could claim that in the modern age the Italian and the Scottish universities have more in common than they have differences. Take, for example, their very different approaches to access and entry. When I was last in Pavia (two years ago) such had been the problem of overcrowding in first-year classes that even by resorting to the use of a local cinema as a makeshift lecture hall dozens of increasingly discontented freshers were locked out if they failed to turn up later than ten minutes before the scheduled start of the lecture.

The drop-out rate after first year was rarely less than 60 per cent and the time taken to complete a first degree was, in some cases, little less than in the notoriously protracted German system.

And yet, when you probe below the surface, you discover that we are already talking, in and across Europe, about the same things; quality assurance and academic standards, the commercial exploitation of scientific research and links with industry, the problems newer universities have in getting themselves "on the map" and, naturally above all else, funding and student support. These are just some of the things we plan to discuss with our Italian colleagues.

In the process we hope to learn from each other. But if we do not - and if we conclude that our systems are simply too different to profit from mutual experience of the different ways we handle the same issues - all of us will still have benefited.

No one, myself least of all, discounts the possibility that at the end of the meeting - when we are to discuss a possible follow-up meeting in Italy two years hence - we may decide that it is all very pleasant but, in a practical world, of little real value.

If, however, the meeting is voted a success, everything is possible, including the prospect of closer inter-institutional relationships (though that is not the meeting's purpose) and, as I personally would hope might be the outcome, student and staff exchanges. At the very least, both sides might agree to keep each other informed of important developments as they develop and/or go on to the drawing board.

As Rashdall reminds us, the first Scottish universities owe much more to the continent of Europe than they do to England. Indeed it was not uncommon for students of the earliest universities to "determine" in Scotland but complete their courses on the continent and graduate there - a practice which was eventually to be halted by decree.

How ironic, then, if these conversations lead to a resumption of that traffic and the concept of the "wandering scholar" becomes once more part of the legitimate experience of the Scottish undergraduate.

Ronald Crawford is secretary of the Committee of Scottish University Principals and of the Committee of Scottish Higher Education Principals.

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