I went yesterday to the Stop the War demonstration at Trafalgar Square, largely because the police had given notice that they were banning it under the Vagrancy Act 1824. This was an appalling attack on free speech, and they were using that Act because Gordon Brown had promised the repeal of the hated SOCPA (Serious Organised Crime Prevention Act), which the government of which he was Chancellor had introduced. In a marvellous piece of Orwellian doublespeak, it sought to prevent “Serious organised crime” by curbing freedom of speech, including banning demonstrations within a mile of parliament.
Just in case people thought Brown’s promise to repeal these SOCPA provisions signalled an end to New Labour’s rollback of liberty, the police blew the dust off the Vagrancy Act (1824) instead.
I couldn’t miss the chance to be arrested for “vagrancy”, it sounded so deliciously Dickensian, and I think it would give me a rock solid case for putting “Occupation: vagrant” in my passport. But half an hour before the march started, the police backed down and unbanned it.
Nevertheless, they had a trick up their sleeve. They split the band of 3,000 demonstrators up into three parts, on College Green, Parliament Square and Whitehall, where they confined them to pens, with a wildly excessive number of policemen herding them like cattle. People were kept crushed in small fenced areas for up to two hours and not allowed to go to the loo. When people sat down (understandable in the circumstances) they were arrested.
What a depressing country.
Which brings me to the state of Higher Education. I was formally “Installed” as Rector of the University of Dundee on September 26. The University refused to publish my Rectorial Address, or give it out to the press, because they “do not agree with it”.
What are we coming to in this country, where even a University seeks to censor out contrary opinion? I do urge you to read the Address, because beyond the in-jokes I made some points I believe are extremely important.
ADDRESS GIVEN UPON THE OCCASION OF HIS INSTALLATION
AS RECTOR OF THE UNIVERSITY OF DUNDEE
CRAIG J MURRAY Esq, MA(Hons)
BONAR HALL, DUNDEE
26 September 2007
Under the Title of:
WHY LONDON SHOULD STOP WORRYING ABOUT SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE – WE CAN STILL RULE ENGLAND FROM BRUSSELS
Vice-Chancellor, My Dear Friends,
It is most kind of you to come along here today as I receive the singular honour of being made Rector of my own University.
I arrive here following our tradition of an idiosyncratic pub crawl known as the Rectorial Drag. That sounds like an occasion for which I should be picking out a nice skirt and blouse – which as some of my former student colleagues here will tell you would not be the first time. The Rectorial Drag however is an occasion where the students pull their new Rector through the streets in a carriage, from City Hall to University, entering the pubs on the way. I can honestly say it is the first time I have ever been dragged to a pub. Dragged out, yes. Chucked out, frequently. Dragged in is a new one.
By chance it is thirty years almost to the day since I arrived, bewildered, into freshers’ week, clutching everything I owned in one cardboard box and a battered BOAC flight bag.
Little did I dream that thirty years later I would become Rector of the place. Certainly not – I expected to be much too busy being Prime Minister.
In that distant first week I attended the Rectorial Installation of Sir Clement Freud. He was a man of great wit and perspicacity, and his installation address was hilarious. Sadly, as we all know, decline and decay is the natural order of things, and with the passing years Sir Clement declined to the extent that he eventually became Rector of St Andrews.
These occasions traditionally involve a certain amount of knockabout humour, and I am sure that no offence will be taken. We look in fact with fond regard to our sister institution south of the Tay Estuary, marking with sadness the scent of her senile decline, as we might an elderly relative whom we care about but are grateful we don’t have to live with.
I believe that Clement Freud was the only one of my predecessors to have made that particular error. Stephen Fry was invited to stand at St Andrews but sensibly declined. They can always try again when he’s 70.
All of which brings me to note what a tremendously talented bunch my predecessors as Rector have been. Here I give the obligatory tip of the hat to Sir Peter Ustinov.
I am biased in the case of two of them, George Mackie and Gordon Wilson, because I was the seconder of one and proposer of the other. That made my own election my third successful rectorial campaign, and I claim the record, to be beaten when I am re-elected in 2010.
Getting elected is of course the difficult bit. My own election was fiercely contested and the result was close. I would like to pay a sincere tribute to Andy Nicol, a real gentleman, for his well-fought and constructive campaign, and for being such a good loser. Though, of course, as a former captain of the British Lions rugby team he did have a great deal of practice.
One excellent piece of electioneering by my opponent was securing the entire front page of the election day Dundee edition of the Daily Record. Most of the page was taken up by a picture of Andy and the headline screamed “I was born to lead Dundee Students”. The Daily Record is a paper which is at least consistent in its standard of accuracy.
The flaw in this great ploy, achieved with considerable effort, was of course that not many of our electorate are Daily Record readers. Some folk surmised that this mistake came about because Scottish Labour HQ were under the impression the election was at the University of Abertay.
Anyway, it was a good bit of electioneering, and made even better by the fact that in this special edition of the Daily Record, my two immediate predecessors, not without some encouragement from within the University hierarchy, chose to endorse the candidature of my opponent.
The Record told us “Outgoing Rector Lorraine Kelly and comedian Fred Macaulay threw their weight behind Nicol as the former Scotland captain urged the University’s Record readers to vote for him in the polls today.”
I believe the University’s Record readers both did.
I don’t regard former Rectors campaigning for a candidate – and thus perforce campaigning against a candidate – as quite the done thing. But it is still potentially effective electioneering. The only downside I see is that, should the ploy fail and someone else get elected, and were that person in the least bit vindictive, that person would then have a great platform in front of the entire University to get his own back. I do see that potential danger, don’t you?
Some of you will be relieved, and some disappointed, to hear that I do not intend to do this. I am very glad that my predecessor, Lorraine Kelly, was Rector of this University. Otherwise she might have gone her entire life without ever seeing the inside of an institute of higher education.
The other ex-Rector involved was Fred Macaulay, apparently a local comedian, though that is not obvious from reading his rectorial address. In the most striking passage, Fred tells us he does a great impression of Sean Connery, adding “Hey, I’m bald and Scottish, how hard can it be?”
Very hard, Fred, very hard. Sean Connery is bald, Scottish and immensely talented. Fred, however, is more like this egg: bald, Scottish and easily crushed. (Breaks egg).
I did say we should have some knockabout stuff, and seriously Fred was a hard-working and popular Rector. I am sure he’ll come up with some much better jokes about me.
Now this is going to be a very dull afternoon if I just ramble on like this and you just gawp at me. We need some atmospherics – feel free to laugh and cheer, or clap or shout “Rubbish” when you want to. Above all do heckle. Heckling is a fine tradition. The very word comes from Dundee.
Heckling is a process in the jute industry. To heckle is to comb out the jute prior to spinning. It was a tough, manual job and the heckling shops were murky with dust that choked the lungs. The hecklers were famous for their radicalism, probably a reaction to their terrible working conditions, and would turn up and yell at politicians. I think that’s quite right – present company accepted I don’t recall ever meeting a politician who did not ought to be shouted at. Thus the hecklers yelled, and the verb “To heckle” jumped from a textile process to a political barracking. Uniquely, as far as I know, what other student unions call election hustings, DUSA called election hecklings.
One appalling development in modern politics is the death of heckling.
Nowadays politicians deliver their sound-bites to a pathetically complacent and complicit media, in front of a carefully selected and vetted audience of the faithful. Just try getting close enough to a politician to heckle them. I mean that literally – please do try. When someone does manage, like Walter Wolfgang, the eighty year old who shouted “Rubbish” at Jack Straw, they are likely to be manhandled and arrested under the laughably named Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Jack Straw, incidentally, is a man who should have “Rubbish” shouted at him from the moment he steps out of the shower in the morning until the moment he retires with his evening cocoa.
The peculiar criminalisation of heckling is part of the most extraordinary onslaught on our civil liberties. Here in Dundee a woman was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for walking on a cycle path. That is true – Google it. And last year we had the extraordinary incident of the Special Branch walking around Fresher’s Fayre. That is something which I promise you will not happen again. A university is no place for the thought police. We have no terrorists here; what our students are thinking is our students’ business. That is why they are here: to think.
The Rectorial Address is a great tradition, and I am standing here on the shoulders of giants. Those who have delivered their rectorial address at Scottish universities include figures like William Gladstone, Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie and JM Barrie. These addresses were great occasions. They have their traditions and their protocols. They have on occasion been highly rumbustuous, and sometimes speeches have been fiery and partisan.
I have however been told that the recent style has been for speeches to be non-political and uncontroversial. So I gave a great deal of thought to a suitably bland title for this address, and I came up with:
“Why London Should Stop Worrying about Scottish Independence Because We Scots Can Still Rule England From Brussels.”
Nothing to argue with there, I think.
The truth is, my whole life I have believed that there is no point in getting on your back legs and opening your mouth in public, unless you are really going to say something. It may not sound very radical, but the vast majority of speakers, particularly in modern politics, manage to sound off for ages without actually saying anything at all. Our Prime Minister – another former Scottish University Rector – did so in his big conference speech last week. That certainly ought not to happen inside universities, but I am afraid it does.
A university must be a place of stimulating intellectual debate across not only the myriad topics of academia, but on the issues of the day affecting society as a whole. The best minds must clash and spark, and students must be fully and intellectually engaged. A university must constitute a vast whirring machinery of the mind, reacting to and operating on the wider society of which it forms an integral part. It must be a place of the liveliest and best informed debate, where no subject is out of bounds, or over-respected, or immune from the heat of debate. A university must be a democratic discussion. If it is not that, it is not a university.
We must be unapologetic that a University is about much, much more than training to get a job. The over-emphasis of vocational training bedevils higher education. Of course your career is important; but you have the entire rest of your life to be a slave to it. You don’t have to start now. The student who concentrates purely on his future career leaves here equipped for only a small part of life. I learnt vastly more in discussions with people of other academic, social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds in bars and kitchens, and from private reading, than I ever did in the lecture theatre. In my formal university learning I acquired skills of logic, analysis, ordering and debate. A University Education must teach you to think, not just to stack widgets. And that is true across every one of our disciplines – as relevant to nurses and dentists as to lawyers.
Scotland has a great intellectual tradition based on this radical liberal concept. Scotland had a prototype of universal education two centuries before England, and had five universities for centuries when England only had two.
I would like now to quote from an essay by Lindsay Paterson, Professor of Educational Policy at the University of Edinburgh, published in 2020, Agenda for a New Scotland, Luath Press 2005. I am going to break a golden rule of speechmaking and read at length from Professor Paterson, because this states what I believe more eloquently than I can express it, and I believe this is a vastly important essay which everyone involved in Scottish universities should read. Professor Paterson’s aim is to sketch out the principles on which Scottish education should be based:
The first premise is to insist on the emancipatory potential of intellectual, serious, theoretical and difficult learning. If secondary schools and universities are not about that, then they are barely worth having. “Relevance” is something we learn with experience, and experience can only be experienced, not taught; we cannot judge relevance unless we have already grasped the principles of a system of understanding. In particular, therefore, vocational courses are not what initial education should be about. They are about training for specific jobs. Where they are not best done on the job itself, learning from the accumulated wisdom of more experienced colleagues (whatever the line of work), they presuppose a body of theoretical knowledge and understanding that ought to be engaged with first. Practice without theory is blind.
… Second, since the building of an efficient economic system ought never to be an end in itself, but only the means to such goals as building a fair, democratic and culturally enriching society, an equally important premise has to be that programmes of general liberal education are better at preparing people for life as decent citizens than any other kind of learning. That was something which the old radicals understood well. You could make citizens for the new era of mass democracy by equipping them with the cultural capacities which the aristocratic or bourgeois ruling class had acquired through their education. Citizenship was not something to be segregated into discrete programmes, but should permeate many types of study – literature, history, geography, politics, science, religion. The student who learns how to debate the meaning of a poem by Liz Lochead, or a novel by Alisdair Gray, or a film by Paul Lavery, or to weigh the evidence for and against wind farms or genetic modification, or to understand the reasons why Islam and Christianity have sometimes been in conflict is in fact well prepared for life as a citizen of Scotland.
Third, we need therefore a debate about cultural purposes. This is where new radical thinking is urgently needed. Although I have been arguing that we should recover the old idea that democratising access to a general, liberal education is the only programme that is truly radical, it would not be radical simply to adopt uncritically the content of pedagogical methods that would have constituted such a programme in earlier eras. For example, the culture to which students should now be exposed is certainly not the unitary one of even half a century ago. In Scotland, we inherit ideas from Islam as well as from Christianity, literature by women as well as by men, working class political ideas as well as middle class ones, Scottish philosophical thought as well as Anglo-Saxon. We have to make selections from a potentially enormous set of curricular options. The guiding principles might be partly the intellectual capacities that we want to be the outcome for students. But it can’t be only that … there have to be moral, aesthetic and other judgements about the value of particular knowledge, unfashionable though that is at a time when values are supposed to be inherently relative and the curriculum is supposed to be only about developing competences …
What should we reasonably expect our graduates to know and be able to do, at an advanced level? Is it sufficient to say that their broad cultural and intellectual preparation has finished at school, or should we expect something more? At the moment, to be frank, we don’t even know whether and to what extent existing programmes of higher education are any kind of common basis for citizenship at all.
I am entirely with Professor Paterson, but it is fair to say that almost all the contributions I have heard from others within the governing bodies of the University have been tending to the opposite, with an increasingly narrow vocational focus. The need for students to get a job on leaving has always been there. The lack of grants and the tuition fees paid by some of our students add to the pressures. But my generation graduated into a labour market with three and a half million unemployed and few opportunities. But the idea that our university experience should be solely about finding a job would rightly have been laughed out of court. People are marvellous things, so much more than simply machines for economic production. Indeed, I would say that is the aspect of them that has the least to do with a university.
Professor Paterson sets his thoughts within a specifically Scottish tradition. That is appropriate today – we are a university open to the world and with a worldwide reputation, but we are also Scottish, as testifies the fact that I stand before you today in the uniquely Scottish position of Rector, elected by the students.
Becoming Rector here fulfils two of my great ambitions in life. The first was when I had a Highland Reel named after me, written by in my view Scotland’s best traditional music exponents the Battlefield Band. Sadly the great Jimmy Shand is no longer with us, but I like to imagine it at ceilidhs – “Our next set is a highland reel, with The Lang Heid followed by Lady Margaret Campbell of Glenlyon followed by Ambassador Craig Murray of Tashkent.” That will confuse them.
So my very own reel a great honour, and my first ambition. My second was to become Rector of the University of Dundee.
I might have to give up on the third, as I don’t suppose Kylie Minogue would be up for it.
You will have noted that my robe is rather plainer than many of the gorgeous ones around. That may surprise you in such an elevated office. The Rector is the second most senior officer of the University. In the University’s foundation document, the Charter, Article 4 says “There shall be a Chancellor of the University who shall be the head of the University”. Article 5 says “There shall be a Rector of the University who shall be elected by all the matriculated students”.
Only after these great honorary offices, from Article 6 onwards, does the Charter go on to list the hired help, starting with the Principal. That is not an accidental running order – for one thing, the Queen by definition does not make mistakes, and for another the order is precisely the same in all the Scottish universities which have Rectors, and is clearly set out as such in successive Universities (Scotland) Acts. But it is an order that this University appears to have mislaid in recent practice. I shall be restoring the influence and the dignity of the position to its rightful place, not for me, but for the reason I am wearing this unembroidered gown – this is based on an undergraduate gown, to indicate that my role is to fight for the interest of the students.
I should be plain that everyone in the University has the welfare of the students at heart – it is simply useful to have someone who has it as their primary concern amid other pressures. One of the problems universitys face is that for funding purposes a prime driver of academic departments is the need to publish a large volume of well reviewed books to produce brownie points. This has led to appalling distortions. You can be a great university academic without ever publishing major research, if you are up with your subject, and communicate knowledge, wisdom and love of the spirit of learning to your students. Cutting edge research provides a key edge to our best teaching, and is a great advantage of many parts of this university. But it is not the sole arbiter of merit, and it is in danger of being so.
My own view – and remember, I have said that a university must be a forum for debate. You don’t have to agree with me at all. What you have to do is listen, respect and then engage, from your own perspective and experience.
Nevertheless, my own view is that the University has put too little emphasis on the quality of undergraduate teaching. If you look at The Times’ detailed table of university rankings, you will find that our students arrive with a score representing their school qualifications placing us 23rd highest in the UK. We have the 23rd highest qualified people coming in the doors. But our completion rate – those actually achieving their degree – is the 105th best in the country.
You can look up the table yourself. So we have some of the best students arrive, but do poorly on getting them through their degree. Of course, there are statistical anomalies, and the figures vary widely from course to course. But the figures do not lie on overall trend, however you try to spin them, and the truth is that we are not good at value added. Doing better by our undergraduates in this respect will be a major goal of my time as Rector.
Another goal will be to improve the governance of the University. Let me try to illustrate my point visually. These are the minutes of University Court for 91–92. These are the minutes for last academic year. The difference is startling. These are not freak years – you can look at the bound minutes yourselves, and the series gets slimmer and slimmer, with a real step change down around 2001.
That certainly reflects my experience of returning to University Court in 2007 after leaving it in 1984. Minutes are fewer, shorter. The whole Court does not lunch together beforehand now, but rather the Administration cabals with trusties. Decisions are taken outwith Court and without consultation. As Rector, I do not expect to hear of the cutting of a vital student service like the free Ninewells minibus, simply by receiving an email like any member of staff telling me it has already been cut. If the University continue to treat the Rector – and Court – like that, I will continue to embarrass them like this.
The sparsity of the Court minutes is a genuine reflection of the amount of information given to court and the extent Court really takes the decisions. At my first two Court meetings this year I complained that we were being asked to take decisions on cutting academic provision, without having any but the scarcest financial information before us. We were told, for example, that factors in the University being short of money included higher than expected pay awards, an unexpected increase in the cost of energy and increased building costs through a higher cost of steel. I asked for this to be quantified. How much were wage costs estimated, and what was the outturn? How much were energy costs estimated, and what was the outturn? How much had contactors increased the contract by for the higher cost of steel? None of this could be deduced from any of the information given to Court.
Not only did I raise this at two successive Court meetings, without to this day receiving a substantive reply, but the fact that I had asked the question did not appear on either occasion in the minutes. One reason why these volumes are so slim. Dissent is deemed not to happen.
I started some time ago, and I am grateful to you for your patience, by emphasising the need for a University to be a place of free and open debate. Scottish Universities are traditionally democratic self-governing communities, and the election of the Rector is a vital reminder of this. I keep repeating that nobody is obliged to agree with my view, but you should know it. And my view is that the governance of this institution in recent years has been more akin to an old English Polytechnic than a Scottish University.
Let me make plain to you that I believe that under Sir Alan Langlands, this University has blossomed under dynamic and effective leadership which has seen a tremendous expansion, continued cutting edge academic achievement and the introduction of wonderful new facilities, including this one. This has become a truly world-class institution. But I completely reject any notion that the traditional forms of academic community and decision making cannot deliver such results.
Indeed, a wider input can make things better, and too narrow a system of direction can lead to error. I have already mentioned my concern at lack of priority on undergraduate teaching. Another example is this building.
It is a lovely new asset, but it could have been designed twenty years ago. Huge atrium. Central air conditioning. People and Planet conducted a survey of all the UK’s universities to rate them for how green they are. We were near the bottom of the list – and you can google that equally true. Look at this building with new eyes. What can you see of the modern innovations in building design which work to offset a building’s carbon footprint? What do you think the carbon footprint of this building is? You see what I mean about the need to involve more people. Making this University greener is another of my major aims – because I believe that is in the true interests of the students.
Universities – including this one – have been much afflicted by the cult of right-wing managerialism, exemplified in the view that businessmen are the only people whose expertise is useful and transferable. This goes hand in hand with the obscene view that a business model applies to every form of social interaction and thus social institution. The Scottish Funding Council is packed with businessmen, as is our own University Court. It is worth noting, by the way, that Scottish businessmen are not nowadays renowned for their interest in the cutting edge, as Scottish businesses are in the bottom quartile of OECD tables on percentage of costs spent on research and development.
Now many of those on our Court are excellent people, but they do seem to have a similar perspective on many issues. Wisdom does exist elsewhere in Scotland. In an institution which embraces a great College of Art, it might be good to see a working artist on the Court, more from the professions, journalism, the law, the clergy, the theatre, the arts, the police. A schoolteacher, perhaps. A bit more creative spark. And representatives of all the staff, not only the academics.
Let us reinvigorate the idea of the Scottish democratic community in its universities. We have a great chance now, we a radical government in Edinburgh determined to emphasise all that is best and distinctive in Scottish tradition.
I have a firm proposal to make. I call for the institution of the Scottish tradition of Rectors in all Scottish Universities, not just the ancient ones. I shall be lobbying the Scottish government to take forward this proposal.