Graduation address – Professor Ali Watson

Friday 29 November 2013

Chancellor, Principal, ladies and gentlemen, and new graduates of the University of St Andrews in particular. It is my pleasure to be speaking to you on a day that marks the ending of one chapter of your lives, and the beginning of another. I love the June graduations, but I must admit that there is always something extra special about the atmosphere of a November graduation – and in particular in the way you will soon leave the lights and warmth of this hall and head in to the fading light, out to the ancient streets, and take your first steps away from a place that has been central to the educational life of Scotland for the past 600 years.

This year is, of course, a special one for us – and this graduation weekend marks one of the final student-led events in our celebrations to recognize the ways in which – for the past six centuries – the University of St Andrews and its alumni have helped to shape the world around us, and to enshrine within it the value and importance of a world-class education. St Andrews is an international university – it has an international student body taught by academics conducting internationally recognised research, and ceremonies like this one today have taken place, in some form or another, throughout the University’s history. As well then as being a personal celebration of individual achievement, today is a very tangible connection to those generations of students who have gone before you. Students like Andrew Bell, who founded the town’s Madras College, Adam Ferguson, now known as the founder of modern sociology, physician Margaret Fairlie, the first woman to hold a professorial chair in Scotland, Jean-Paul Marat, one of the most radical voices in the French Revolution, and Patrick Hamilton, whose activism whilst still a student here led to his death, and whose initials mark the cobbles outside of St Salvator’s Chapel. I mention these names in particular because what is sometimes overlooked is the tradition that the University of St Andrews has in the field of social justice. The first designated students’ union in Britain began in St Andrews in 1888, and it was St Andrews too that was the first Scottish university to admit women undergraduates in 1892. This recognition of the importance of rights and social justice continues today, in the way that the University celebrates the achievements of honorary graduates who have played key roles in these areas, such as Baroness Helena Kennedy of the Shaws, Justice Richard Goldstone, and Professor Noam Chomsky. We see it in each of your Schools in the research that is taking place that has people at it’s heart, whether its an examination of the social history of art or classical studies, the study of corporations and the social contract, the work being done on the implications of psychological research and practice on social justice, on notions of national identity in Modern Languages, or on people and populations in the School of Medicine. I hope you won’t mind me mentioning too that in my own School of International Relations, as in others, the theme continues, including work on belonging and social action, on reconciliation and transitional justice, on genocide, and on indigenous rights.

We see it too in an emphasis on social justice in other work around the University. Project Zambia, for example, is run by the University of St Andrews Student Services and focuses on educational achievement in a small primary school in Kazemba, Chongwe. But most importantly of all, we see it in the very real contribution of student societies to social justice campaigning, both in the UK and internationally: Women for Women International, for example, which is raising funds to help women in the Congo, Microfinance and oikos St Andrews, which campaigns to alleviate poverty and its long-term causes, and Teddy Bear Hospital which aims to teach local children about health and healthcare.

In this St Andrews weekend, it is perhaps appropriate that I echo the words of an important Scottish activist, Jimmy Reid, a Scottish trade union leader who rose to international prominence in the 1970s during the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders Work-in. Addressing students at the University of Glasgow over 40 years ago, his words remain just as relevant today. If an increase in technology results, Jimmy Reid stated, in more leisure time, ‘then our whole concept of education must change… to equip and educate people for life, not solely for work or a profession’ … but also … ‘in service to our fellow human beings’.

This is important, because we must never forget that it is the education of students that is at the heart of this university and every other – because St Andrews is an international university and also because what St Andrews graduates do can make a difference to people’s lives throughout the world. So when you leave this hall shortly – with our best wishes for the future, and our thanks for the contribution that you have made during your time here – remember too that in graduating from St Andrews you join the very small percentage of the world that has a degree from an institution of higher learning. So congratulations – you’ve made it! Your degree will not only change your life, but has the potential to change the lives of others. Use it well.

Professor Ali Watson
School of International Relations

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