Graduation address

Monday 30 November 2015


Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, for over 600 years, students have journeyed to reach the St Andrews standard Aien Aristeuein, Ever to Excel. I offer today’s graduates sincere congratulations on being the latest to make it.

A warm welcome to parents and supporters here, and online, to our (now your) University. Graduates, without these people you would not have made this journey, let us show both gratitude and admiration with a round of applause for them.

You might notice a little tear in their eye. Why?

In Chinese ‘儿行千里母担忧’. ‘When children travel far from home, mothers never stop worrying.’ You are no longer children, but they remain parents and supporters, a unique bond. You won’t remember your first smiles, steps and words, nor how eager you were to share them; I promise you that they won’t forget.

This is the central paradox: the thing your parents and supporters most desire and work so hard to help you achieve, your successful independence from them, colourfully signposted today, by its very nature brings a sting of loss alongside happiness, love and pride.

We, your former teachers, remember your nervous, expectant faces in your first days here. It is the magic of university, it transforms you from students to equals; you leave us behind too.

Today is the last St Andrew’s day ceremony for our Principal and Vice-Chancellor. I wish her all the best in her journey and pay her a personal tribute for her efforts on our behalf. She sets a standard worth aiming for.

Graduates, you have earned every bit of your success, but to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: ‘A good person is proud of their roots. The best person lives so their roots are proud of them.’ I am going to finish with a warning, a plea and an instruction.

The warning comes from, Il Gattopardo (The Leopard): ‘If we want excellence to stay the same, things will have to change.’

The UK and Scottish Governments, by reducing support for teaching and research, honour the cliché that education is the best investment, only in the breach. The decrease in Government funding is matched by increased Government meddling. The Scottish Parliament is currently debating a Bill to give the Minister extensive ill-defined powers that have the potential to end autonomy, a principle upon which we and other leading universities around the world are built. The Bill also dictates identikit structures for St Andrews and the equally excellent but completely different Glasgow School of Art. I do not see any of this enhancing or sustaining excellence, nor am I alone in these concerns.

These actions and the underpinning political calculus should trouble the conscience of the civic society of any nation. That this is happening in the birthplace of the Enlightenment, home to several of the world’s best universities, and in a country famed for commitment to education is, to me, a Scot, a source of shame.

Excellence, although at serious risk of being diminished, will not be lost forever; six hundred years of history gives perspective on Government interference. King James I was pretty keen on us becoming the University of Perth, Cardinal Beaton burned the odd troublesome academic and the Reformation impoverished us. The University of St Andrews has recovered, prospered and remained true to its motto Aien Aristeuein, despite egregious Government meddling.

How? I will tell you the secret. It is not the bricks, it is not the history and it is nobody on this stage. It is one very simple but very powerful thing: it is our graduates – you, the newest members of the General Council. Here is our plea: the University needs each and every one of you to maintain your involvement and your commitment, so that excellence will stay the same.

Today is about your journey to new things, so let me finish with an instruction. In the immortal words of proud, happy, but perhaps moist-eyed people left behind: ‘Keep in touch and let us know how you are getting on.’

Good luck and thanks.

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