Principal’s graduation address
St Andrew’s Day Graduation Address By Dr Brian Lang, Principal & Vice- Chancellor Friday 28 November 2003
Chancellor, Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I should like to thank all of you for being here today. I should like to congratulate those who have graduated with first degrees, and those with second degrees. You have worked hard and I hope that your newly-acquired St Andrews degrees serve you well. I hope, too, that you will serve Scotland well.
Congratulations to the professors who have been inducted today. To achieve a Chair is to be granted entry to the elite – and I make no apology for using the word – of the academic world. You have already come a long way in your careers and today’s ceremony has been a significant rite of passage. That you have taken part in this ceremony indicates that you do not take your achievement of a Chair for granted. I understand that one of you, though, thought you would not bother with all of this Latin flummery – until your mother found out and insisted that you be here. I will not embarrass the obedient professor, or the mother concerned, by naming names.
Congratulations, of course, to our distinguished group of honorary graduates, the new association with whom the University is very proud. Thank you for joining us today. And thank you to the choir. I am very proud of the University’s choir and their performance today justifies the pride we all have in our chapel choir.
Today we are celebrating St Andrews Day, even if a day or so early. This University grew out of the religious establishment that in early mediaeval times was the centre of the cult of Scotland’s patron saint. So we are celebrating the University, too. The University is currently performing rather better, I must say, than Scotland’s football team. And for the record, congratulations to England’s rugby team. I spent last Saturday morning watching a large-screen television, cheering England on, together with a group of Scottish businessmen and university Principals. It was exhilarating to be among a group of Scots cheering on a determined, well- trained and skilful England team. We look forward to the next Scotland-England match – well actually we don’t, but let’s not get into that!
But back to St Andrews – as I have said, we are doing well. Our student places are in substantial demand, to the extent that we had to admit rather more new students this year than we had planned, so we are fifty or so ahead of this year’s target figure. That means pressures on teaching staff, teaching facilities and accommodation. But these are problems of success. We remain as committed as ever to increasing the diversity of students at St Andrews. The student body this year comes from 92 countries. 25% of our students are from abroad. Increasing the number of international students in the UK is a Prime Ministerial initiative, and this is truly Scotland’s most international institution. We are also committed to increasing the social diversity of our students. One of our regular summer schools – initially supported by the Sutton Trust – is designed for young people whose social and economic circumstances would not generally be expected to lead them naturally to St Andrews. We bring them here for a week, and show them how exciting and absorbing university life here can be. The other summer school is designed for applicants to the University who have not quite made the grade for reasons we think are most likely related to social or economic circumstances. This might be because they are a little older than usual and have missed out on educational advantage; they might come from schools or families with no tradition of coming to university. All applications to the University are considered individually and a priority for access can be added. While the University will not raise the barriers to entry against any applicant, it reserves its historical right to lower them for any individual of genuine potential. Those summer schools are proving highly successful and people who have been through them are now being admitted and are succeeding as undergraduates.
Given that we are in a unique location for a university, with a rural rather than urban hinterland, and with poor transport links to Fife, let alone the rest of Britain, this is no mean feat. It is a sign of our determination that this university is accessible to anyone who will benefit from being here, regardless of their background. We are offering equal opportunity to excellence.
Another activity we have been engaged in, to help disadvantaged people come to St Andrews, is raising funds so we can give them bursaries and scholarships. We have been raising money specifically for that purpose over the past year. So far we have been doing the asking in a discreet and unpublicised manner, but we have already raised over half a million pounds and pledges and promises extend to a further one and a half million pounds. New scholarship schemes will be announced soon as a result, and we will be continuing to raise money for scholarships.
As far as the University’s research is concerned, we are also doing well. As you will be aware, St Andrews is the most research intensive university in Scotland. Indeed, for both research and teaching, and the other kinds of measure that are customarily involved in this kind of assessment, St Andrews is the only university in Scotland regularly to be placed among the United Kingdom’s top ten universities.
We have been doing well in the competitions for research grants. St Andrews is involved in four of the eight successful projects announced this year by the Scottish Funding Council. All of them are collaborative with other universities and we lead two of them, one on ‘Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria’ and the other on ‘Biophotonics’ Much of our research effort is collaborative with other universities. Indeed, St Andrews has been centrally involved in the discussions about the joint Scottish centres for advanced research which have been in the news. The idea is that by pooling staff resources, Scotland’s universities will be able to create centres of research excellence on a scale that will mean we can compete with anywhere south of the border. Our research prowess is recognised by multinational companies like SASOL, a South African energy conglomerate that chose St Andrews as the site for its first overseas research centre, so that their chemists could work adjacent to our catalytic chemists. Here is another example of this University serving the Scottish economy.
University funding is much in the news these days, but we are determined to be positive about our future. We have been able to branch out. Several new senior appointments in medicine have been made. Our new Centre for Business Education opened this year. Two new 12 month M.Litt. courses have started, in Marketing and International Business. Some exciting senior appointments were made to lead those courses. The business plan told us that to break even in this first year of activity we had to fill 30 places. In the event, we filled more than 100 places. We know that we have a good new programme and we can be very confident about its future. This can only be good for Scotland. Again, one of the areas on which Scottish Ministers want to concentrate in helping grow the Scottish economy is the creative industries. We have plans to begin teaching film and television studies at St Andrews, and that will include screenwriting. We are also exploring a creative industries initiative with the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art.
I believe that everything that St Andrews does contributes to the agenda for a smart, successful Scotland. We want to be part of the drive to grow Scotland’s economy. The priority is to build gross domestic product on a broad economic base. The universities are vital to this task. The Herald referred last week in a leading article that urged Scottish Ministers to treat our universities decently, to the claim that the universities “offer the only show in town able to turn around the economy”. That is a big statement. And it has a great deal of merit. Universities are contributing by providing two essential products. First, we are producing well-educated, internationally aware graduates. Secondly, we are producing excellent research. The academic staff of St Andrews are continually creating new knowledge. That is what we are best at – the pursuit of knowledge, driven by a desire to answer questions that are posed as a result of a focused curiosity about how the world works. History is full of stories about practical applications deriving, in due course, from pure research. Electricity. Number theory and computing. Nuclear physics and nuclear energy. In St Andrews one of our physicists is working on light emission from organic materials with regard to its marketable application, but this grew out of his pursuit of basic science. The basic work our biochemists are doing will assist the design of new drugs. We should have confidence that pure research will produce marketable ideas, even if the process from one to the other is rarely easy.
As to our students, in particular the kinds of high achievers who are graduating today, I said right at the beginning of this address that I hoped they would go on to benefit Scotland. They can do so in several ways. Many will fulfil the First Minister’s ambition by remaining in Scotland and fill positions that will have direct relevance to growing the economy. Others will take positions in many countries around the world. I hope, though, that in due course they will come back to Scotland and apply the knowledge they have gained in St Andrews, combined with that added international outlook they have achieved from working in other economies and other cultures. To make that happen, to ensure that all of today’s graduates will benefit Scotland, there will need to be opportunities that will attract them back to Scotland. There will need to be challenging jobs, there will need to be an economic climate that will allow them to establish their own businesses and thrive. Those two conditions drive one another. A healthy, growing economy generates exciting jobs. But similarly, the production of well-educated graduates is a precondition of economic growth.
One last mention of funding. I referred to the success of our Centre for Business Education. The development of that Centre was possible only because it is filled by students from abroad. It is their fees that make their education possible. In St Andrews we are proud of our cosmopolitan population. What we do not want, is a situation in which to keep standards at St Andrews University high, we have to admit overseas students on such a scale that might one day compromise the other essential part of our personality as a distinctively Scottish university, serving the Scottish economy. The Vice-Chancellors of five leading English universities wrote to The Times this week, arguing hard for the passage of the Higher Education Bill in Westminster that will give them substantially more income, from what is essentially a graduate tax. And please note – it is a variety of graduate tax that is being proposed. The so- called ‘top up fees’ are a dangerously misleading misnomer. The route being proposed for England is closed to the Scottish universities, so an alternative source of additional funding has to be found north of the border if we are to remain competitive and do our job educating the best brains in Scotland as well as producing good research.
The message that we have recently been given from the Deputy First Minister, that we should not expect additional funding from public money is difficult, frankly, to understand, particularly bearing in mind that very substantial extra money – hundreds of millions of pounds – could flow into English universities from a source closed to us in Scotland. So the future for Scotland’s universities could be a bit chilly. At this stage in the spending review we know we cannot expect a promise. Our message, though, is straightforward. Please recognise all that the higher education sector in Scotland has been doing for Scotland, help us go on doing it, and help us do it better. Surely Scotland, as much as England, wants, needs and deserves, universities that are genuinely world class. We want one of those to be the University of St Andrews.
Thank you all.
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