Opening Graduation address
The following address was delivered at the opening Graduation ceremony yesterday (Tuesday 19 June) by Deputy Principal and Master of the United College, Professor Keith Brown.
Vice-Chancellor, graduates, friends, colleagues,
Some years ago I graduated from the University of Glasgow. Like you, I attended a graduation ceremony, presided over by the Chancellor and listened to a graduation address probably not unlike the one I am about to inflict on you now. I remember that it was a fine, warm day. I remember sitting waiting to go up onto the platform to receive my degree. And I remember where my family and I went later that evening for dinner. However, I have no memory at all of who sat in the Chancellor’s seat, or who was the Principal, or who gave the graduation address, nor do I remember a single word of what was said. The point of this short and futile trip down memory lane is to indicate my own expectations of what my words are likely to mean to you. A graduation address is little more than a ritualised pause between anticipation and celebration. You will forget what I have to say, but I shall say it anyway.
Was it worth it? That is the final question I wish to ask those of you who have just graduated, the last of many questions you will have answered in this place over the previous four years. It is what we often ask after purchasing an experience: dinner at a good restaurant, a short-break, or a football match. Being complex animals we do not reach obvious or easy answers. The food at the dinner may have been awful but the deal that was negotiated may have been `worth it’. The short-break may have been drowned in heavy rain but the mending of the relationship may have been `worth it’. The football match may have involved a long and costly trip to an inaccessible part of Eastern Europe where the team was thrashed and too much beer was drunk. And yet, even with the depressing result and the inevitable hangover the experience was, inexplicably, `worth it’. And then there are all the other people involved in evaluating whether or not that experience in which you played a part was `worth it’, the waiter, the travel agent, the other team’s supporter who taunted you as you left the stadium.
What about University ‘has it been worth it? Your parents and family probably believed at the outset that University was a good idea. They were probably pleased when you received an offer, they may have been particularly pleased that it was from St Andrews, if not for the reputation, then at least for the remoteness. However, as the years rolled by, it is also possible that some doubt crept into their minds as the cost mounted, the results faltered, the half-told tales sounded alarm bells, and the thought of what next remained, frustratingly, unanswered. Perhaps, parents and friends, you are even now thinking that it will be some time before you see the return on that investment? But in spite of those doubts, you are here to join in, to contribute to the celebration, to add your acclamation to the value, or worth, of what has been achieved.
And what of those who have taught you? Well, of course, the University and its staff think you are worth it. We have enjoyed your company; indeed our academic colleagues gain a great deal from teaching some of the brightest assemblies of people anywhere on the planet. A frightening thought given what you might see in the town centre late on a Friday evening! However, at a more mundane level, if there are no students, no-one gets paid; not the lab technicians, the library staff, the administrators, cooks, cleaners, janitors, the distinguished Professors, not even the Principal; no-one gets paid. It is clearly in our interests to ensure that you receive the best possible experience during your time in St Andrews. We need you to leave thinking it was worth it; we need your future employers to think that a St Andrews education is worth it. We want you to have happy memories, to credit your later successes to what you learned at St Andrews, to send us your children, and even to support our endeavours in the future. There is absolutely no reason for us not to want to do whatever we can to persuade you that your St Andrews degree is worth every ounce of sweat, every rush of adrenalin, every passing minute, every pound spent.
And what about government? We all know that politicians say they believe education to be worthwhile, that schools must raise attainment and universities must contribute to the knowledge economy, to the still elusive Smart, Successful Scotland. But we also know that taxpayers, and hopefully you are about to join that body, are resistant to tax increases, and that government has to make difficult decisions. Your degree becomes only worth so much in comparison to other demands on limited cash. And so government offers inadequate funds to provide you with the level of teaching and learning that we believe you need; consequently universities must make up the funding gap themselves. And in some measure we do, St Andrews more than most. Nevertheless the evidence suggests that, to date, government does not really believe your degree is worth it because it pays less than the market value for tuition fees, indeed it pays less than the cost.
Even more perversely, government in Scotland currently prevents universities from bridging that gap by refusing to allow home students to contribute to those costs. It would be interesting to know what you would be prepared to pay for the learning experience of the last four years and the degree that you now hold in your hands? Is it worth an additional £3,000 per annum? Would that have been money well spent, particularly as that money would have guaranteed even greater access to your lecturers along with even better libraries, sports facilities and halls of residence? That is the sum being paid to universities in England by their students who appear to think it a price worth paying. It is a not an inconsiderable sum of money, and clearly means must be put in place to aid those who cannot afford to pay. On the other hand, when compared to what else might be purchased for that sum, the cost of what is being acquired may not be so unreasonable.
So do you think your degree is worth it? You have invested time, effort and money and what do you have in return, what is the value of your degree? Value, of course, is not merely about price as measured in pounds and pence. For that reason it is not enough to sell a university education on the basis of financial investment set against financial return over a working life, although that calculation does come down decisively on the side of a degree. What you should have gained here in St Andrews goes far beyond a better future salary and all that it might buy. If you have gained friendships, broadened your understanding, learned from setbacks, acquired deep knowledge, honed your tolerance of others and their ideas, absorbed lasting values, tested your character, discovered your limitations, added to your skills, explored your talents and determined on a course of action, then your time here has been well spent. If a St Andrews degree is nothing more than a ticket on a career escalator, we have failed you, you may have failed yourself, and your time here has less worth than we would have hoped.
To conclude, the Victorian philosopher, Herbert Spencer, wrote that `The great aim of education is not knowledge but action’. The action begins now; it is the story of the remainder of your lives, and it is our wish that what each of you has learned here may allow you to make a success of your life by the contribution you make to our world. That may be in the business sector, in public service, in voluntary work, in the creative industries, or in your relationships with others. As to whether or not your time at St Andrews has been worth it, we cannot answer that question when the journey has barely begun.
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