Students are at the forefront of resistance to the Westminster Government’s attack on public provision of services. And that’s because universities were one of the first places to feel the full brunt of that attack. The crude logic behind the cuts to university is that students should choose their degrees purely on the basis of future earnings. The knock-on effect in Scotland is universities introducing fees of up to £9000 for students from the rest of the UK. Over a four year degree, this makes Edinburgh University one of the most expensive universities in the world.
As you can imagine students are angry about this. Not because they will pay the fees. Having started their courses already, they won’t. But they’re angry because this creates yet another barrier for those wanting to go to university. While Edinburgh is putting in place significant bursaries, the headline fee will be enough to put many off.
And putting people off university is a disaster for our country and for our world. Universities are the places where many of us developed our understanding of the world. I’ve rarely met anyone who has gone to university and not come out a more rounded person. My time at university was a brilliant opportunity to meet new people, encounter new ideas and become a better person.
So when students approached me to be their Rector, I was happy to represent their anger at the imposition of what amount to deterrent fees. I’ll make sure the University hears that anger. And I’ll be working to mitigate the impact of those fees.
One of the areas where the University could really improve its provision is in accommodation. I was shocked to find that while first year students are sent to live in Musselburgh, there is former student accommodation at Pollock Halls being used for rich conference-goers. While Musselburgh is a great place to live, I can’t imagine it’s an easy place to get to know Edinburgh from as a first year student.
While the formal role of the Rector is to chair the University Court (effectively its Board of Directors) effective Rectors are able to shape the University’s agenda.
Over the past decade Edinburgh University’s Rectors have catalysed a range of significant changes to the University. Robin Harper made the University’s excellent work on the environment a selling point. Tam Dalyell encouraged the University to invest its funds ethically and Mark Ballard and Iain Macwhirter were at the forefront of the fight against fees. Mark also secured a rent freeze for student accommodation.
I hope that I’ll be able to fill those big shoes, and continue their good work. I also hope the University and the government will listen to the anger about fees. The damage done by fees to our society is irreparable – while it may seem unlikely that we can win we must continue to campaign for free, fair and funded education.