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Graduation address

By University of St Andrews Master and Deputy Principal, Professor Colin Vincent:

Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen. We are here today to acknowledge and celebrate achievement – the personal achievement of a number of individuals at various stages in their lives and careers.

At the start of the afternoon the Chancellor conferred ‘first degrees’ such as Master of Arts and Bachelor of Science on students who have completed the earliest stage of their higher education, before he proceeded to confer postgraduate degrees such as Master of Letters and Doctor of Philosophy, and exceptionally, to award a Doctorate of Letters, one of our highest qualifications – a degree which reflects both original and substantial contributions to advancement of knowledge and which constitutes work of such high distinction in scholarship and research that a successful candidate is expected to be a world authority in his or her field.

We then witnessed the installation of professors to their chairs – to become a professor is the highest aspiration for most members of academic staff and I heartily congratulate my new colleagues. Two of these professors were inducted to “Bishop Wardlaw Chairs¿. Promotion to such a professorship, named in memory of the University’s founder, is the highest honour that the University can offer to members of its staff. Until today we had five Wardlaw Professors, now we have seven, all of whom are either Fellows of the Royal Society or of the British Academy.

Finally the University paid tribute to three Scots who have brought honour and distinction to our country by their unique and substantial contributions in diverse fields. Thus the University of St Andrews whose motto is Ever To Be The Best acknowledges the high achievement of its members.

As you will all know, this University is almost 600 years old. Since the 15th Century Scotland has taken great pride in the high quality of its university education, but we are now entering a period of great uncertainty where our ability to compete effectively on the world stage of research and intellectual endeavour is in jeopardy.

Forty-five years ago when I became an undergraduate student, only the top 5% of school leavers were admitted to University. There, members of this highly select group were stretched, intellectually challenged, exposed to the latest in research methods and engaged in the current problems of their chosen discipline. I had come from a very modest background – my father had died when I was very young but I had attended an excellent local comprehensive school. In university I had no tuition fees to pay and Argyll County Council supplied me with a generous maintenance grant which covered all of my accommodation, food (not to say the odd pint of beer), travel and books. Had this not been the case, I would not have attended University. Nowadays almost 50% of school leavers go on to college or university and we have many more universities – fourteen in Scotland. To support all of these even at present levels, far less to provide similar maintenance grants for so many more students, is increasingly difficult. Further, those particular universities which aspire to provide an intellectual environment suitable for the country’s very brightest students – an environment comparable to that available to students in countries which are our industrial and commercial competitors, find that there is now a major funding gap. Such universities can neither offer salaries to staff which compare with what they might earn in most other parts of the developed world nor can they build and equip the modern laboratories that are essential if they are to educate world leading research scientists and engineers.

There are a number of fundamental questions which need to be considered. First, is it a bad idea that in this country we aspire to provide further or higher education to 50% of all school leavers? I think that this is a wonderful achievement for Scotland. I passionately believe that provision of free but appropriate education and lifelong learning to all of its citizens who desire and can benefit from them is not only the mark of a civilised society, but is a prerequisite for successful commerce and industry, a healthy economy and a better quality of life.

Another question might be: Should the government therefore now make substantial further investments in post school education? Whatever the level of tax a government of this or any other persuasion decides to impose, the question of priority must be addressed, and I am not persuaded that, say, doubling the investment in universities should take precedence over support for schools, FE colleges, the health service, care for the elderly and disadvantaged, aid to developing countries and so on.

Should universities, or at least some universities, therefore, charge students “top-up fees”? I think this is far from the best way ahead and I would greatly regret it if this comes to pass. Even if an acceptable scheme could be formulated to exempt students from poorer backgrounds from such fees, we could end up with a situation where those from rich and poor homes would be able to attend university but many from the huge range of middle-income middle-class professional families (such as those of university lecturers), would be unable to afford university education without a totally unacceptable loan burden.

Here then is a final question: Is there a possible answer to this funding conundrum? I believe that the solution may lie in a more appropriate use of the resources which the government currently invests. Where I believe we have gone wrong in this country has been to accept the idea that we need the same form of educational experience for all students in higher education. What was, and still is, appropriate for the most intellectually gifted group is not appropriate for 50% of school leavers. To compete internationally and generate the ideas which will fuel future industrial development we must have some universities which are supported in a way which will enable them to compete with the best in the world – with Columbia, Stanford or MIT, or with Paris IV or ETH in Zurich. Further, for the very brightest students there should be maintenance grants so that they can benefit from a highly taxing intellectual regime without having to work in cafes and bars in order to eat.

An alternative approach might therefore be to have a small premier league of universities funded by government to the highest level. But this implies at least one and probably several other divisions, where funding will be at a lower level. Those of you who have studied chemistry will recognise the Markovnikoff Rule while those of you from the Faculty of Divinity may remember Mathew XIII, 12. Is it wrong to provide the best facilities for the country’s most gifted students? It is perhaps not a very good metaphor, but should we insist that the funding of Manchester United should be reduced in order to elevate the status of, say, Swansea City? It seems strange that we can admire and support Paula Radcliffe for being the best middle distance runner in the country, but it is somehow wrong to admire and support Jock Tamson for being the best student of Physics or Economics.

Education in St Andrews is based on the central principle that our students are taught by staff who are actively engaged in scholarship and research and who are recognised as international leaders in their fields – almost all of our departments were rated 5 or 5* in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise, and none is lower than 4. We believe passionately that for the cohort of students for whom we are responsible, research is the essential source for inspirational teaching. This is our mission, and given the resources, we can deliver. Universities such as ours are global players which need to be funded at a higher rate because of the level at which they teach and do research. The fact that one of our neighbouring institutions, Elmwood College in Cupar, has a different mission does not in any way make it inferior to the University of St Andrews. It is just different. It is an excellent institution and strives for further excellence just as we do. Its graduates are, as I know, just as proud of their achievements, and rightly so, as any of you here today. Scotland needs the skills and abilities of Elmwood graduates just as it does of graduates from here. But Elmwood College does not need a new Liquid Helium Plant costing nearly £1M, nor Biomolecular Science Laboratories costing £9M nor the need to retain a group of philosophers who are classed as being one of the top 16 departments in the world. Scotland must have a highly diverse post-school educational system and funding must be allocated to enable differentiation of this sort.

The equation “elite = unfair” must be challenged. If an “elite university” is one where better or more advanced provision is available to students who have rich parents, then this is clearly unacceptable. But if an “elite university” is an institution funded by government to compete with the best in the world, but open to all from whatever background, provided that they are in the country’s most intellectually gifted group, then surely this would have wide public support.

I do not suggest that selecting students for such an institution would be easy, and I do not think that using A-level or Higher results derived from schools which recruit from widely different catchment areas and have significant differences in funding and teaching provision would be the best way forward. But there are lots of other models and strategies – e.g. the introduction of “quaternary education” (or “highest/furthest” educational institutes) coupled with the idea of staged selection.

I could go further, but there is a danger of this becoming a polemic on how to fund universities, inappropriate to a graduation address. I will therefore sum up by asking that in the current debate, Ministers should not forget the benefit to Scotland and the UK of fully harnessing the abilities of our country’s intellectual Paula Radcliffes and David Beckhams.

I very much hope that all of you who have graduated today have enjoyed your time at St Andrews and the experience of studying in this rather special place. Remember that the good name of Scotland’s First University goes with you. It has been our privilege to enjoy your company for the past few years and we wish you success and happiness in the future whatever your chosen career. We hope that you will always remember your days in your Alma Mater with pleasure and affection.

ENDS

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