Sunday, February 15, 2009

Rector Reflections

The most difficult thing was explaining why I wanted to do it. As the 50th Rector of Edinburgh University, following my election last week by students and staff, I will now be chairing the University Court, the governing body of one of Scotland’s great cultural institutions. It’s clearly an immense honour and a privilege, and - I hope - a lot of fun since being Rector involves associating with some of the brightest and liveliest minds in the country and speaking on the great moral issues of the day.

But as I was trundling around lecture theatres and dinner halls canvassing support, I kept being assailed by the question why? Why did I want the hassle? It became increasingly difficult to give the same pat answer without sounding just a little false. The subtext of the question was clearly that there must be some kind of ulterior motive. People don’t just take on these roles for nothing these days - puh-leese - there must be something in it for me. The students didn’t want to condemn me for it; they just wanted to know what it was.

The more I answered the question the more I started questioning my own motives. I’m not a daytime TV celebrity or a full time politician, so there is no real PR benefit. The job involves no salary or comfy expense account and, so far as I know, there are no lobbying companies seeking rectors-for-hire. Apart from a lifetime membership of a unique club which includes Gladstone, Churchill, and Lloyd George, it’s not clear what the material rewards really are of being Rector of Edinburgh University. Perhaps I should have just said: ‘because it’s there’.

So, why did I stand. Well, the first reason of course, was that I was asked to - and sometimes that is incentive enough. Call it vanity, but it is very hard not to respond when you’re called out of the blue by a group of bright undergraduates from a wide range of political backgrounds, who seem to think that you stand for what they stand for. After thirty years in the tawdry trade of journalism, it’s nice to be told that you actually stand for anything at all- even if you’re not quite sure what it is. When you realise that the students are mainly interested in you because you are not one of the other candidates the ego boost diminishes just a little. But it was still immensely flattering to be told that I could take on, in electoral combat, someone like Lord George Foulkes, a former cabinet minister, one of the most experienced political operators around. Or that I could beat the Respect MP, George Galloway, one of the greatest parliamentary orators of his generation and the man who faced down the US Congress over those alleged oil dealings with Saddam.

But you rapidly discover that it’s not really about the candidate, but the effectiveness of the campaign - which in my case was led by the dynamic Edinburgh undergraduate Devin Dunseath, and devised by the President of the Edinburgh University Students Association, Adam Ramsay, whose sometimes shambolic appearance disguises one of the sharpest political brains I have come across. Certainly, my campaign worked and delivered one of the largest votes in the history of rectorial politics - something of which I am immensely proud. I haven’t stood in a competitive election since I left school, but political inexperience turned out to be an advantage. There is such a depth of cynicism about politics at all levels now, that just being a politician has become an electoral handicap - at least in an election like this.

Of course we had policies on student debt, the accommodation crisis, the quality of teaching and such like, as well as on broader issues like Gaza. But being independent of any party line was very important as was being remote from parliamentary sleaze. The Lords-for-hire scandal broke just as the campaign got underway, inflicting immense collateral damage on the unfortunate Lord Foulkes. While he'd broken no rules by peforming parliamentary services for the international law firm Eversheds, it was very hard for him not to suffer guilt by association. There was a whole range of issues which made Lord Foulkes’s campaign an uphill struggle - not least his record of support for university top up fees, the Iraq war and identity cards. He fought a very dignified and effective campaign for all that.

But the hyper-cynicism that has afflicted our political culture has left us in a very difficult situation. The way things are going, not being a politicians may be the best way of winning elections. Even my uncertain delivery in the hustings debates, where I was no match for my rivals’ oratorical skill, added in a curious way to my credibility. I was clearly not comfortable selling myself and I struggled with the stilted discourse of electoral politics, where what you don't say is as important as what you do.

So what now? Well, there will be little opportunity for motivational navel-gazing because Universities are heading for difficult times. Budgets are going to be under immense pressure. Graduates, burdened with £20,000 debts, are going to be dumped onto a jobs market that no longer wants them - at least not in the numbers of the last ten years. Universities are in the front line of the financial crisis, and it is going to require hard lobbying to remind governments that investment in higher education is even more important in an economic downturn. There’s a whole range of issues requiring attention. So, once I find out what I’m doing it for, I’ll let you know.

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