As happens every three years, the students of the University of Glasgow will have the opportunity to elect their new rector in 2014. In this time of uncertainty, both in the economy and in education, it is more important than ever that we make sure the best candidate is chosen to lead student representation at the highest levels.
Glasgow, alongside the other ancient Scottish universities, are lucky enough to decide who will occupy this office. The most traditional role of the rector is expressed in the 1858 Universities Act, where the rector is said to be the one who “shall preside at meetings of the University Court.” This means that we are the ones who appoint the chairman of the University Court, the governing body of the University, giving students a voice in the decision-making process. As the University grows and becomes more bureaucratic and competitive, it may be easy to forget the true cornerstone of such an institution is the intellectual and personal development of the matriculated students. Therefore, our interests should be considered first.
The rector’s duties must not be limited to the five times a year when the Court meets, but the rector must also be aware of the issues and difficulties students face in order to lobby for students at the highest levels, both in the University and beyond. The best way to accomplish this is to work closely with the SRC and hear the opinions of students first hand with regular open surgeries.
For the past six years our rector has been the former GUU President and Liberal Democrat MP Charles Kennedy. The election of a political rector is not new to the University, as eleven former Prime Ministers have held the position in the past. Having a student representative in the Parliament of Westminster is not something to be underestimated and, since 2008, Kennedy has asked 19 questions in the House of Commons related to higher education, in several of which our University and his role was mentioned.
Charles Kennedy has also been an active member of the University Court, chairing the majority of the meetings held since his election. It was undoubtedly this combination of politics at a national level and on-campus work that contributed to his re-election in 2011, making him the first rector to serve consecutive terms since 1974.
However, it seems his commitment to the position has been weakening over time. In the past academic year, he was absent from three of the five meetings of court. Perhaps more worryingly, his parliamentary activity is falling, with only one question related to higher education being asked in Westminster in the whole of 2013. Furthermore, as happened with many of the surgeries – the opportunity students have to meet with their rector and discuss any issues – last year, the first meeting of this semester was also cancelled.
Serving for six years as rector is a long time in office, but it isn’t an excuse to loosen the action at a time when it is needed just as before.
Next semester we will have the chance to vote in a new rectorial election, and for half of the undergraduate student population this is a vote we will only cast once. The election is a great democratic privilege, but also a great responsibility for us. Now that we face important challenges in difficult times, such issues concerning tuition fees, immigration visas, accommodation and employment, we need to make sure our voices are heard more than ever, both in the University and elsewhere. The only way we can achieve this is by electing a rector that is fully committed to the role. It’s us, as students, that can make a great difference to the success of this greatly demanding task. Just as it was claimed in the 1930s in order to elect a lower profile, but more engaged, candidate against the tradition of great statesmen that appeared only once in their term at the University, a true “working rector” is needed today.