Graduation address 30th November 2006
Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen –
All of us here today have reason to be pleased, proud and, most likely, a bit relieved. For those of you graduating with first or second degrees today, you will most likely have had a long, hard struggle and you can now justifiably look forward with confidence to the next stage of your careers. To the new Professors, you have joined the academic elite and I look forward to your company as senior colleagues. To our honorary graduate(s), thank you for accepting the honour upon which we have bestowed you. We hope you feel pride in your association with this ancient University. And to my colleagues sitting behind me, whose students are graduating today, doubtless you, too, are going through a mixture of emotions, but pride in your intellectual progenies will, I hope, be foremost.
What has it all been for? What is the purpose of a university education, and who should benefit from it?
Our objective is to educate any person who will benefit from being here no matter his or her personal circumstances. We are welcoming students to St Andrews from an ever-diversifying range of backgrounds. In particular, we are attracting steadily increasing numbers of students from what are known as “non traditional¿ backgrounds as far as higher education is concerned. However, while we are attracting such students, and giving many of them significant financial assistance to help them come here, our approach to social inclusion is intended to ensure that excellence is not compromised. We know there are lots of bright people in Scotland who would shine here and our task is to identify them and then persuade them to apply to St Andrews. We have a number of mechanisms in place to achieve that. There has been recent publicity to a pilot scheme we have been running with Kirkcaldy High School, in which 14 and 15- year old schools students are assigned student mentors from St Andrews. The Kirkcaldy students then work in the university on a research project, and get a taste of university life. This is in addition to over 50 student volunteers working in a number of other Fife schools.
None of our so-called ‘access’ mechanisms, though, do any academic favours. Certainly, we may take applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, who just fail to make the entry grade, into our summer school, but they are admitted to first year university studies only if they can prove to us, by passing through the summer school successfully, that they have the intellectual capability of making their way in the tough academic climate of St Andrews. We have no interest in encouraging people to come here who will most likely fail. That could do no-one any good. We are committed to equal opportunity in admissions, but we are determined to offer equality of opportunity to an excellent institution, whose academic standards remain high. This strategy is serving us well. The student body of St Andrews is increasingly diverse and more Scottish domiciled students than ever are applying to come here.
And what is it all for? 2006 marks the bicentenary of the birth of John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher who from 1865 to 1868 was Rector of this University. At his formal installation ceremony in 1867 Mill gave a celebrated two hour address on the role of universities. Have no fear – I have less confidence in my ability to keep you awake. Mill supported a Scottish higher education that was then as now at once broad and deep, a four year first degree followed by postgraduate study, as many of you here today have been through.
But why not the short, sharp three years as in an English university for a first degree? As the US newspaper Business Week alluded recently, English universities are all very well, but their degree courses have a significantly narrow intellectual base. Scottish universities by contrast require study in a wide range of subjects and undergraduates need not commit to their specialist subject until they have established their talents and proclivities. Our four years give wider scope for learning, not just about George III, Latin subjunctives, millimetre waves and the art of essay writing and experiment. University offers much more than that. The emotional turmoil that is an adolescent mind finds stability and a shrinking personality finds confidence and assertiveness. In his 1867 address, Mill noted that universities are intended “not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but capable and cultivated human beings.” We need doctors and lawyers, but we want them to be more than mere technicians; we want compassionate doctors and humane lawyers. Universities do not merely train people, they educate.
Today, let us not forget that our patron St Andrew, whose special day we are celebrating, was a fisherman. The University of St Andrews is also fishing, and we are casting our net ever wider and ever deeper.
My main message is one of congratulation to all of you. You will never forget your time in St Andrews, and we will not forget you. Please stay in touch and visit us frequently. I am confident that the University of St Andrews has served you well and I wish you well in your future careers
Thank you all, and good luck.
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