Graduation address – Professor Andrew Mackenzie

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Vice-Chancellor, ladies and gentlemen, graduates.

You, the graduates, are the stars of the show today. It has been a huge pleasure to see so many smiles from people I have come to know over the past four or five years. I know that the physicists among you have worked hard to achieve this graduation, because I have seen you in action. Anyone who thinks that students have it too easy these days should drop by the wonderful ‘learning lobby’ of our School. There, they would see you working together on problems, united in loathing for the people like me who set them! I suspect you will miss the sense of community, if not the problems themselves.

As you set out today on your careers, be they in research or other professions, spare a few moments for reflection. The first people I hope you think of are the ones sitting behind you in the hall, your families. They put so much into supporting you, financially and emotionally, through the demands of your degree. At the open days that we hold for prospective students, we meet people from all walks of life, but amid that diversity the common theme that shines through is supportive families. So, Mums and Dads, I hope this is one of the proudest days of your lives, too, and that you take the time to enjoy it.

The second thing you might pause to think about is what this University represents, indeed what all universities should represent.  A good university should challenge and inspire its students, teaching them not what to think but how to think. It should be a home for a diverse range of opinions, and for free and open debate. Although this will seem obvious to most of you, it is not something we can take for granted. Free thought, and in particular free expression, is not always welcomed. Think, for example, of the lobbying by parts of the tobacco and oil industries to discredit research results whose implications were commercially inconvenient for them.

One of the most delicate issues is the relationship between universities and governments. Governments are, by definition, in place to govern, but the line between governance and control can be a fine one. Taken to extremes, this can bring them into spectacular conflict with universities. Throughout history, the first act of many a repressive regime has been to close its universities and persecute their occupants.

Living in the UK, we do not see anything as extreme as this, thankfully. However, the autonomy of universities is regularly challenged. Funding for research and even for teaching is coming with more and more strings attached. We have to report to various government bureaucracies in ever-increasing detail about an ever-wider range of our activities. Every year seems to bring a new set of demands. The process is slow and does not attract much public attention, but the freedom of universities to set their own priorities is steadily being eroded.

There is an argument, of course, that since our universities are dominantly funded by the state, the state has a right to define their activities. However, I believe that that argument is false. Although funding universities while granting them autonomy requires self-restraint on the part of governments, it is vital for the health of society that they exercise that restraint. Society is enriched by new ideas that challenge the received wisdom. We impede the formation of those new ideas at our peril. Unfortunately, restricting the topics on which people are funded to work does just that. So does subjecting top thinkers to the demands of a suffocating bureaucracy.

I raise these issues today because you, our graduates, have a powerful voice. You will move on to influential roles in many walks of life. Keep an eye on the higher education debate, even if it is not making front page news. Speak out in favour of the autonomy of our universities, and against over-regulation, however well-meaning. By doing that, you will help ensure that your children will enjoy the same vibrant university experience as the one you have just completed.

Professor Andrew Mackenzie
School of Physics & Astronomy

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