Alistair Moffat

10th August 2012 at 01:00
The rector of the University of St Andrews talks about laughter, the merits of elitism and why he thinks Britain's most successful educationalist is J.K. Rowling. Interview by Julia Belgutay

What is the most important skill you bring to the role of rector of the University of St Andrews?

Humour. Universities take themselves immensely seriously, so the ability to laugh is probably a good idea. And certainly the reason I did it was the students. I was just blown away by them. Especially the women - they were so smart, so politically aware.

What is the most important part of your role?

Because you are elected by the students and not an academic, you are outside the bubble of the university, the most important thing you can do is bring perspective. The most important thing we have done so far was to get the Kate Kennedy Club (a men-only club started in 1926) to admit women.

Has St Andrews changed since you were a student?

Surprisingly little in some ways, but in other ways yes, enormously. What is different is that thickos like me could never get in. I got in in 1968 with an A, a B and a C. They were letting anybody in. It was tremendously social. That is what has stayed the same - it is three streets. It was three-and-a-half thousand students when I was there, and it's now 7,800, but that incredibly intense experience is still there.

Have the students changed?

Oh yes. The big change is gentrification. I was born on a council estate and I was able to go because you could get a grant and there were no fees. The irony is that here I am, rector of an institution I would never have gone to now. We couldn't afford it.

St Andrews is seen by many as an elitist institution - rightfully so?

Oh yes. Universities are elitist by definition - only smart people go there. They should be elitist. But it would be better if they were elitist purely on ability, and not the ability to pay. As a society, we have to make the very best of our young people, so you want the smartest to enjoy the best education, and not merely those whose parents can afford it.

So are you against tuition fees?

Completely. Absolutely. But unpicking that is a gigantic political job that I don't see any appetite for in any government.

There is a lot of pressure on the ancients to boost their widening access policy. Do you think St Andrews is doing enough?

Yes, I think our principal is committed to doing as much as is feasible and is possible. We have started initiatives which widen access, particularly in subject areas, but we have to work within the constraints. We are doing everything we can within the rules and the situation. But I think the system militates against radical action. I would love to see a Scottish government really remove as many of the obstructions and obstacles as possible.

Do you think there should be a quota on universities for the number of people from the poorest backgrounds they take in?

No, I think quotas are a bad idea. It should be done purely on merit. But of course, that is quite a loaded prescription. I was lucky in the Borders because all of the secondary schools are natural comprehensives, so everybody goes. Because of that, they do well. But in cities in particular, where there is a big fee-paying sector, unless you go to one of these, your chances are consequently much less.

A lot of your recent work has revolved around literacy - how do we get children to read more?

The most successful educationalist in Britain is Joanne Rowling. Above my PC I have a big sign, and it says, "It's the story, stupid". That is what Joanne Rowling did - she told cracking stories, and people read them. When I was in school, when you won a school prize, it was always book tokens, and you weren't allowed to choose the books. You went into James Thin's in Edinburgh, and this entirely splendid woman called Miss Granger would look at you, go off and choose the books for you. When I was 12 or 13, she came back with The Lord of the Rings. She was bang on. Every generation needs 10 Harry Potters and that will re-arm people with literacy.

As someone who has worked in the media for years, do you think the media is doing enough to protect children from inappropriate content?

I think in terms of television and radio there are plenty of safeguards in place. What is entirely unregulated is the internet and we have all seen shocking pornographic images on the internet that are so easily available. Kids must see a huge amount of awful stuff. I think the internet is a huge problem, and I don't know how you solve it.

Do you agree that 50 per cent of Scottish young people should go to university?

Absolutely not. That is madness. We need to define what university means. I think 50 per cent should go to higher education, not university. Universities were a specific thing when I was young - they were where the academically bright people stayed. There were eight of them at that time and it was very clear what they were.

You have had a varied career so far - what do you rate as your greatest achievement?

Survival. I don't think endless curiosity is an achievement, but that's what I've got.


Born: June 1950, Kelso

Education: Inch Road Infant School, Kelso; Kelso High; University of St Andrews

Career: Writer, journalist, former director of programming for Scottish Television, former director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, founder and director of Borders Book Festival, last year launched the business Scotland's DNA, rector of the University of St Andrews.

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