Collage credit: Jan Jasinski

Rector candidates discuss the campaign

By Odhran Gallagher, Niamh Flanagan, Jan Jasinski

Confirmed candidates to be the next University of Glasgow Rector have spoken to The Glasgow Guardian.

As the election for the next Rector of the University of Glasgow approaches, four of the candidates have given exclusive interviews to The Glasgow Guardian to discuss their unique pitch to students and the big issues which are motivating their campaign. 

Following the closing of nominations on Monday 22 January, four candidates were confirmed to be running for Rector: Professor Ghassan Abu-Sittah, Susie McCabe, Lady Rita Rae, and Paul Sweeney MSP. The Rector is a student-elected position on the University court (the governing body of the University) which is intended to represent student interests. 

Paul Sweeney MSP

Paul Sweeney is one of only two rectoral candidates to have graduated from the University of Glasgow. He finished his studies in 2011, graduating with an honours degree in Economic and Social History and Political Science. Sweeney discussed this when speaking to The Glasgow Guardian, saying: “I have relatively recent experience of being an undergraduate student at the University. I was the first person in my family to go to university, I was a working-class student at Glasgow and had to deal with cost-of-living issues. You know, I had to stay home and juggle my studies…I’m very familiar with the financial constraints facing students today.

“So I think that the key pitch for me is really to be an active working Rector with a good track record of mobilising campaigns for social and economic justice in the city able to really carry those arguments on behalf of students interests to the management at the university, to the council, and indeed, to the chamber of the Scottish Parliament.” Paul Sweeney has served since 2021 as an MSP for the Glasgow region and has been involved in a number of campaigns in the city including the introduction of safe drug consumption sites and the campaign to keep Reidvale housing association community owned. 

Paul Sweeney went on to talk about his plans for outreach to students on campus, saying: “the power of the chair and the privilege of the chair is to make sure that all interests are effectively given representation on the university court and that’s something I would be out rigorously protecting.

“For example, I went down to visit the [11 University Gardens] occupation a couple of weeks ago, and spoke to the students there and we had a really good discussion about divestment and opportunity cost of the university’s investments. I made the point again, that the University is one of the city’s biggest institutions, what could the power of that institution be for advancing social and economic justice in our city?”

Glasgow Against Arms and Fossil Fuels (GAAF) occupied 11 University Gardens in part to protest the University’s investments in arms companies such as BAE Systems and Thales, which Sweeney called “a proportionate action to raise legitimate concerns” After graduating in 2011, Paul Sweeney worked for BAE Systems Maritime Naval Ships, based in shipyards at Govan and Scotstoun. 

Sweeney finished his interview saying: “I can be of support generally to all the campus institutions to try and raise the profile of their activities and their elections and so on, it’s not just about the SRC, but there’s obviously the other student bodies that we can work with. I want to be a generally helpful presence, I’m not here to dictate terms, I just get a buzz from finding problems and trying to help people solve them – that’s what I’m about.”

Paul Sweeney has been endorsed by the Glasgow University Union. 

Susie McCabe

Susan McCabe is a local comedian from the East End of Glasgow. After training as an electrician, and a successful career in the construction industry, she moved into stand-up comedy. Like Sweeney, Susie McCabe claims that she “will be a working, visible Rector about the University campus

“I’m very fortunate that my work is roughly at the same time as when students work. Essentially, I work on weekends and I work in the evening. And my actual job of being a stand up I can do from anywhere in the world, I literally need a laptop, a pad, and a pen to do my job. So there’s no problem with me bringing my work here to be visible on this campus so that you can come and approach me.

“I would have lunch at university, you’ll see me walking. Albeit, I will have surgeries, which could be in zoom and could be in person. But if I’m about the campus and you see me, just come up and talk to me. I might not be able to resolve your issue then and there, but I’ll ask you to email me, and I’ll correspond with you, and then I’ll chat to you.”

In her manifesto and interview, Susie McCabe has been clear that she is motivated by a desire to help support students who are struggling to stay in higher education: “I know what it’s like to do an apprenticeship and have two part time jobs. I know what it’s like to struggle financially, I’ve been there and I can show a bit of empathy and I can show a bit of compassion, regardless of your class, or your ethnicity, or your gender identity, or your sexuality. I just sit with you and have a laugh.

“I’m working class, but I have done nothing but challenge the status quo. And that’s where I think me being wrapped up and being a conduit between the students and the university management would be very important.”

McCabe’s nomination was led by student Gemma McLaughlin, a member of Young Scots for Independence, the SNP’s nationwide youth wing. The Glasgow University Student Nationalist Association (GUSNA), the SNP’s UofG branch, has not endorsed McCabe. Despite being outspoken about politics, McCabe insists that “politics wouldn’t come into this job…I’m here to say: what are your issues? Right. I get that. Okay. I’ll take it up. I see what you’re saying. That is very important. If I had interest in politics, I would be a politician.”

Lady Rita Rae

Lady Rita Rae is the current Rector of the University of Glasgow, and is seeking re-election with an endorsement from the Glasgow University Catholic Association. She told The Glasgow Guardian: “partly because of the nastiness that went into the first election and then the unfair article by The Glasgow Guardian, I wasn’t going to stand again because I didn’t think I should expose myself to that.” 

In 2021, Lady Rae ran for Rector against John Nicolson MP and local councillor Junaid Ashraf. In 2023, The Glasgow Guardian published an editorial which accused Lady Rae of being an absentee Rector. The piece was then picked up by The Times and made national news. In the interview, Lady Rae strongly denied the accusations, pointing to the surgeries she has done on campus, and that she has replied to all student emails “without fail.”

Lady Rae went on to say “But then when I was approached by a group of students asking me to stand again and I had great difficulty in saying ‘no’. And I thought: I’ve enjoyed my engagement with young people, I’ve always enjoyed my engagement with young people a lot. And I think the role of Rector is an important one…I’ve tried to respect and fulfil the office. Although there’s no job description in a sense, it’s about representing the interests of students to the University Court.”

Lady Rae described her approach to the position as focussed on “not seeking headlines,” but rather seeking to solve individual student problems. While she was in touch with the GUU and the SRC over particular issues during the first year of her tenure, she alleges there has been “no engagement” from the organisations afterwards.

“I don’t want to start walking into organisations and say, look here, I’m the Rector. In a sense, I’ve instead waited for students to contact me. Is that the wrong way to do it? I don’t know.”

Professor Ghassan Abu-Sittah

Dr. Ghassan Abu-Sittah is a British-Palestinian Associate Professor of Surgery. He is an alumnus of the University, having completed his medical education at the University of Glasgow in 1993. Abu-Sittah’s work has specialised in paediatric craniofacial surgery, cleft surgery, and trauma reconstruction, although he has also worked in the private sector in plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Throughout his career, he continued to work in conflict zones, including South Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza. At the outbreak of the current war in Israel and Palestine, he entered the Gaza Strip to volunteer in field hospitals. He has been a prominent critic of the Israeli Defence Force’s actions in Gaza and was featured on BBC Newsnight and Sky News in recent months to discuss the war in Israel and Palestine. 

In his manifesto, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah said he is running in order to provide “students the opportunity to declare their opposition to Israel’s genocidal war in Gaza.” His four pledges are to “pressure the University to officially and unequivocally condemn Israel’s ongoing genocidal campaign in Gaza,” “call for the University of Glasgow to divest from the arms trade,” “forge new connections and reinforce existing partnerships with the leading universities in Palestine,” and “call for the replacement of the IHRA definition with the Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism,” which doesn’t link criticism of Israel to anti-Semitism. 

In conversation with The Glasgow Guardian, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah spoke of his experience as a student at the University in the 1980s: “As an 18 year old coming from the Middle East I saw a Glasgow that really transformed my view of the world helped shape my view of the world and my sense of international solidarity. And therefore, after this experience in Gaza, when I was approached by some student groups, I felt that I would like to help pay back what I felt I owed”. 

When asked about his view on the University’s current stance on the ongoing conflict and involvement in arms investment more generally, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah was decisively critical, stating, “I think in terms of risk, speaking to lawyers after the International Court of Justice about the plausibility that the war in Gaza is genocidal, Glasgow University from a risk point of view, keeping shares in BAE system… puts not just the soul of the university at risk, a university that has played such a critical part in alleviating diseases through its medical school, in progressing human welfare, is now to be associated with acts of genocide. So both legally and morally it is critical that we campaign that Glasgow University gets rid of these shares in the BAE system.”

In the course of the interview, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah revealed that he had worked with and personally known the former late UofG student Dima Alhaj, who was killed in an airstrike on Gaza in 2023. Of her death, he said “I knew her, and how proud she was to have been an alumni of Glasgow University. I mean, it breaks your heart whenever you meet Palestinians in Gaza who have been to Glasgow, the amount of pride, like myself, they carry at being alumni of this university. Yet this university administration has decided to remain deathly silent about their slaughter.”

 Despite an emphatic and emotive focus on the ongoing conflict in Gaza, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah challenged the notion that his candidacy would be a single issue one. He spoke about the need to address issues of student poverty and gender based violence as other priorities for his candidacy, and identified corporatisation of higher education as a key issue: ” I mean one of the big issues remains the corporatisation of university life. The issue of corporatisation manifests itself in terms of a living wage for academics that reflects the kind of skills and the need to retain academics within the United Kingdom… But also, the fact that university education is free in Scotland does not mean that there isn’t student poverty. Student poverty is still a big issue in Glasgow and it’s critical that we address issues of student poverty 

“Two, the issue of gender-based violence…We cannot leave this issue and go from one absolute tragedy to another without really taking a very strong institutional line with regards to trying to address this. The Emily project in forcing universities to take a more proactive line on gender-based violence is also critical.”

Furthermore, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah was clear that the rectorship of the University is an inherently political role: “Life is political and education is political. You know, student poverty is political. Gender-based violence is political… The struggle for anti-apartheid in the 80s was political when Glasgow University students decided to take it head on… Life is political. You know, at the end of the day, this idea that there’s something political and then there’s the rest of life is a false, false narrative that those in power try to create to maintain the benefits of an unchallenged existence.”

To conclude, Dr Ghassan Abu-Sittah provided a reassurance that despite no longer residing in Glasgow, his tenure would not be characterised by absenteeism, and that he would be both present and involved with campus events: “For me the rectorship is not just a ceremonial position. I mean despite the fact that I live in London it is easy to come up to Glasgow regularly and to hold online consultations and clinics where people can approach the rectorship as an ally in the University.”

Voting for the next Rector of the University of Glasgow is due to open on 25 March via the UofG Life app. All candidates’ manifestos can be viewed on the University website here


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