Peter McColl Rectorial Address
The five Scottish Universities with roots in the pre-modern era each have Rectors. The Rector presides at the University’s governing body, the Court, and is elected by students (and at Edinburgh University, staff).
I was elected Rector of the University of Edinburgh in an unopposed election in January this year. I was ‘installed’ last week in a ceremony. Here is my address:
“Principal, Ladies and Gentlemen, and for those of you who read the Journal, Comrades,
I am delighted to be able to address you today. I am delighted to be joined by so many you, and to have received so many good wishes. I worked on the campaigns of the last four Rectors of this University, so it’s good to finally make it to the podium myself. When they told me I was to be processed, maced, robed and chaired, it all sounded ever so slightly medieval, so I’m pleased that it’s been pain free so far. The Chairing is, however, still to come.
I must start with some thanks. Firstly to the University for being so open in the period since I became Rector. The ceremony today is the stalwart work of Susan McGinley. I’m grateful to her for pulling all of this together. I’m also grateful to Victoria Bennett, who has the patience to put up with me. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Mike Williamson, who popped the question back in September – though not on one knee – however, if you’ve got a shiny ring I’m sure I’d be pleased to take it off you.
I’m grateful to McAsh, whose work meant I was able to garner the signatures to get elected, and was prepared to run a big campaign had anyone been brave enough to challenge me. I’d like to thank the students who supported me and who have been so welcoming. My parents have made the journey from Belfast today to be here, and I’m very grateful to them. Finally, I’m grateful to my partner Maggie. The Earl of Minto, when Rector from 1911-14 brought the wrath of students upon himself by refusing to give a Rectorial address. Maggie has been subject to me trying to deliver this address on an almost daily basis since mid-January. She is truly a woman of great patience.
I am aware of significance of the job that lies before me. Having closely observed the work of the previous four Rectors, it will not be easy to match their achievements. Iain Macwhirter, whose work on the review of University governance, has done so much to secure the position of Rector. Mark Ballard was the most committed campaigning Rector I’ve ever seen. Tam Dalyell is a great campaigner against war, and for a new role for Britain in the world. And Robin Harper, whose work on making the University more responsible for its impact on the environment, has made Edinburgh a destination for students wanting to attend an institution which is a world leader in sustainability.
All four help to explain the role that a Rector should play. He or she should be an advocate for students, should take forward issues of student concern and should ensure the good governance of the University. In days gone by students elected high profile people to hear them speak just once in their 3 year term. As you’ll all by now know, you’ll be hearing rather more from me than that. And I’m very grateful for the positive reception I’ve had from all those I’ve spoken to.
It’s a particular pleasure to return to my own University as Rector. I was a student here between 1998 and 2004. I spent a great deal of time soaking up the intellectual vibrancy of the University, I learnt a huge amount as Vice-President of EUSA, and I was able to enjoy a great year as President of People and Planet. For me, Edinburgh University was a truly transformative experience. It was an experience that set me up for life. I hope to be able to ensure that more people are able to enjoy that experience. My determination to protect Universities as seats of learning, not commercial graduate factories, is rooted in my own positive experiences of a learning led University.
So if Robin Harper’s rectorship was about the emerging environmental movement and Tam Dalyell’s about student opposition to the Iraq War, what does my election tell you about students today? Well, things are pretty difficult for students, for graduates and for young people more generally. Youth unemployment is at a record high, graduate unemployment is eye watering. Our generation is suffering the brunt of an economic collapse we had very little part in causing.
And that’s what my nomination as a rector from this generation says. It is a cry of anger from a generation faced with greater responsibility than any since the 1930s and offered less support than any post war generation. The strategy being pursued by the UK government is one of forcing our generation to pay for the mistakes of the past, and forcing us to do so without any help. It is utterly immoral. Those who moved from Eton or Winchester to Oxford where they had their education paid for have no moral authority to exclude so many of our generation from Higher Education. They have still less right to load our generation with debt as part of their plan to shift wealth from the poor to the rich.
Our generation, those born after Thatcher came to power in 1979, has been the subject of a brutal and sociopathic attack in the form of neo-liberalism. We were forced through a school system that had greater and greater levels of competition imposed upon it. We were the first to have to pay for our University education; we have had to work in a service dominated economy that largely fails to provide fulfilling jobs. And now graduates face record graduate unemployment and forced labour schemes designed to rob them of any dignity in the workplace. Truly, we are the first generation to face worse prospects than our parents.
The strategy here, if you haven’t spotted it yet is to make sure that, while those who have enjoyed welfare through their lives can’t have that removed, government can withdraw support one generation at a time. So pensioners living in southern Europe get winter fuel payments and high earning workers in their 60s get bus passes. Today’s students have to pay for their education after they leave school and have a discriminatory lower level of minimum wage until they reach 21. Few significant benefits have been withdrawn from older people, while our generation is forced into a market relationship at every stage of life.
I must be clear here. I don’t think that older people don’t deserve those benefits. I believe we have the common wealth to pay for benefits for all. We are stronger together, and these benefits are very effective at eliminating poverty and ensuring social solidarity. What I am demanding is that we level up the solidarity available to our generation, not level down those enjoyed by other generations.
So what is to be done?
I am hoping to emulate Mark’s excellent record as a campaigning Rector. I hope to follow Iain in strengthening the role of Rector and ensuring transparency and openness in our governance. I want to continue Robin’s good work in making the University a world leader in promoting sustainability. And let’s just hope we don’t have to deal with another foreign war…
Our generation needs spokespeople; it needs to lead the way in creating a better world and it is my mission to support that process. The development of a generational politics is essential to address the gross iniquities that are developing between generations.
But this struggle will not be uncomplicated. Already the criticism has started. The voices similar to those that resisted the development of a gender politics, a politics of race, or of sexuality, are calling for an end to generational politics. And these voices are no more correct about generational politics than they were about gender, race or sexuality. All are important struggles, and all must receive attention if we are to create a better world. In the same way as austerity has hit women harder, so it is hitting young people harder.
Our generation faces graduate unemployment of 20%, a vast reduction in the number of stable, rewarding careers available to us, the indignity and exploitation of unpaid internships. One and a half million people under 30 are unemployed. The average age of first time house buyers is 37. And that’s before you consider the long term impact of climate change and the moves to privatise the NHS in England. We must continue to create a better world, not abandon what we have achieved over the past 70 years.
Another set of voices will claim that it is impossible to reclaim a caring society for our generation. They argue that the only change that is possible is change that damages our situation and that to criticise an iniquitous system is to risk making that system more unfair. This ignores a history of social change in which progressive movements have ended slavery, secured the vote for working people and then women, and stopped apartheid. Had people thought these were unimportant or unachievable, the world would be a much worse place today. We cannot be put off our fight by nay-sayers.
I will be working hard with staff and students to ensure that students are well prepared for the world that faces them. I will be campaigning against the terrible consequences of austerity, generational discrimination and for a better world. A world shaped for the better by staff, students and graduates of this University. A world in which we make things better, not allow things to get worse. And a world in which every young person can look forward to a fulfilling future.
Please accept the invitation to join me in this task.”