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Graduation address – afternoon of Tuesday 22 June 2010

The following Graduation Address was delivered by Professor Frances Andrews on the afternoon of Tuesday 22 June 2010.


Principal, Honoured Guests, Colleagues, Ladies, Gentlemen and especially new Graduates.

Congratulations. Enjoy the moment and try not to forget it. This is a celebration of what you have achieved, and though you may not remember the details, I hope you will remember the enjoyment that goes with achieving such an important milestone.

Most of you will have noticed already that St Andrews is the third oldest University in the English speaking world. It is a proud fact and one you can hardly miss if you open the web page or any of the printed information about this institution. But I am a historian – and what’s more, a historian of the Italian middle ages. When I think about the origins of this University, I also think of the other universities it joined at its foundation in the early fifteenth century: as well as the two in the English speaking world (somewhere south of here), this means universities in great cities like Bologna and Paris, Cologne and Prague, Rome and Krakow. In that list, what is particularly remarkable about St Andrews is its relative size. According to their websites, Bologna now has some 84,000 undergraduate and Masters students, Prague has 42,000, even Oxford has 20,000.  By contrast, last year St Andrews taught just 7,400 students at all levels. As graduates of a medieval university that makes you a very select group of people.

And yet St Andrews graduates are to be found in every corner of the known world. As far as I know, none of them have yet made it to the moon or a space shuttle, but they have had glittering careers in all sorts of fields, from banking and finance (where they are much needed) to sport and politics. Many of you will already know now what you are going to do next. A few of you will perhaps join the academic profession, others of you are already almost there, having completed PhDs like those on the stage behind me. Many of you will, I hope, become teachers, passing on what you have learned here. Or perhaps there’s the odd trainee solicitor or voluntary aid worker among you, or a journalist for a wine magazine (that list is based on what some of my own former students did on graduating). Perhaps almost as many of you will have no idea – but don’t panic! As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have argued some two and a half thousand years ago, ‘the only constant is change’. The world you and I are living in now is both very similar and very different to the one I encountered when I graduated in history from the University of London over a quarter of a century ago with absolutely no idea what to do next or what the next chapter in my personal story would be. In 1984 there was a Tory prime minister in London, economic retrenchment was the main task of government, the Miners’ strike was underway and there was bad news about the public funding of universities. On other fronts, Seve Ballesteros won the St Andrews Open and internationally, filofaxes were the yuppy fashion item of the year (though not, as far as I remember, for students). The web was unheard of and Apple unveiled the Apple IIc, a portable computer which weighed three and a half kilos and could house up to one megabyte of memory. Today, as you know better than I, you can buy an iPad which weighs just over half a kilo and yet is enormously more powerful, with up to 32 gigabyte capacity. Computers have become the mainstay of the university’s working life, as have those websites. Handwritten essays, the reeking ink and purple fingers of cyclostyle machines have long gone. In 1984 – and long after – students stood in line in halls of residence or outside red phoneboxes to call home on extraordinarily smelly pay phones. Today, the few students who don’t have a mobile phone may be using Skype because it’s cheaper, visual, and more fun. We knew none of that in 1984, despite the resonance of that particular year in Orwellian terms.

And of course, most of you have studied International Relations, so you will be better informed than I am about the changes brought about by the end of the Soviet Union, the rise of the BRIC economies, the reconfiguring of Europe – not to mention Scottish devolution. I don’t think the London government was actually announcing any cuts on the day I completed my degree, but then we thought that there would be no jobs, that ‘leisure’ would be the future …  how wrong we were.

Although it may not feel like it now, I suspect that for many of you there are similar changes between the person you are now and the person you were when you came here. The son of an old school friend of mine is now leaving school and choosing his university, so he and his parents came here on a visiting day earlier this spring. He said he liked the look of St Andrews because (I quote) ‘it looks like a proper university’. I think he was probably referring to St Salvator’s, but he may have been thinking about the red gowns worn by his student guides. Of course buildings are important and we do have some lovely ones (as well as one or two ripe for renewal), but when it was suggested that looks might not be the best of reasons for choosing a university, he went on to say that a proper university would also be a place where he could learn without depending on his family (his mother was standing next to him: had she not been, perhaps he might have phrased that sentiment differently). He also hoped to make friends who would last a lifetime and to have fun. I hope that you have done all of these things – and I am pretty sure that you have learned a great deal from your teachers, whether or not it was what they intended to teach you: how to write an essay (if need be overnight); how to think on your feet (even when not as prepared as you might have intended to be); what expertise really means and how to handle the May dip or Raisin weekend. Above all, I hope that you know yourself better than when you arrived here and what you are capable of.

Our honorand today – Robert Darnton – is a man of great distinction, but whose career, as we have heard, began like yours, at a university, from which he graduated 50 years ago.

Many of you will make your mark in less public ways, but you will nonetheless make a mark on other people. Bear this in mind as you head on to the next step. Do us proud – and come back to see us. Remember that your teachers really do want to know what the next chapters in the story involve.

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