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Dangers in electing an absentee rector

Because I'm 43 and instinctively conservative and occasionally patronising, my first reaction on hearing that Edward Snowden had been elected as rector of Glasgow University was to dismiss it as pointless and silly.

But because I also used to be a student and am sporadically idealistic, my second reaction was a rather warmer affection for student politics: the colour and enthusiasm of it, the naivety and myopia, the hopefulness, the pointlessness.

My experience of youthful politics is at the outer fringes when I was at school and university in the 1980s. A year or two above me at school was Michael Gove, the Coalition Government's Education Secretary. Even then he was a politician of the corridor and the classroom. In many ways, he was unlike almost every other teenager (14 but looking 40) but he was also typically teenaged in that he held attention-seeking, extreme views and held them trenchantly. I'll leave it up to you to decide if his views have mellowed or not, but it strikes me that, in voting for Snowden, the students at Glasgow have displayed some of the same attention-seeking qualities.

In the years after school, at Aberdeen University, my involvement with student politics was limited to voting in elections for rector. Most students didn't bother to vote and of those who did, few took it seriously. When the Tory MP Nicholas Fairbairn stood, for instance, I voted for him for no other reason than he regularly turned up on campus, his legs swathed in garish tartan trousers and his eyes lighting up at the sight of totty.

Twenty-five years on, I can see some of the same patterns of extremism, impracticality and apathy in the election of Glasgow's rector. For instance, Snowden's team kept saying there was a great turnout, but only 6500 students voted. Considering there are 23,000 at Glasgow, that's 28%, a fairly remarkable display of disengagement.

Snowden's election also shows a lack of self-awareness by the students. Writing in The Herald, one of his campaign team, Howard Liley, appeared to suggest Snowden's election would encourage students to question the practices of governments. He seemed to dismiss the role of rector as "primarily honorary". But reducing the role to a lightning rod for protest ignores what the rectorship really is and how it has worked in recent years.

It is certainly true that the rector, even though he chairs the governing body, doesn't have much to do with the day-to-day running of the university's staff and budget. Quite rightly, that's handled by someone with experience (in Glasgow's case, the convener of court David Ross) and this day-to-day business will go on, whether Snowden is in Russia or not.

But what Snowden will not be able to do is perform another of the critical functions of the rector, which is to represent the students; a job Snowden's predecessor Charles Kennedy carried out with skill and passion. Kennedy held surgeries on campus, for example, and saw his role as de facto MP for the students. Snowden will never be able to do that from exile in Russia.

The saddest part is that any of the other candidates (Alan Bissett, Graeme Obree and Kelvin Holdsworth) could have fulfilled such a role. I've interviewed both Bissett and Obree and I can imagine either of them effectively representing students; Obree in particular would, I'm sure, have fought hard for gay students or those struggling with mental health issues.

In voting for Snowden instead, what the students at Glasgow have effectively done is ignore the role of rector as student representative even though they must know how important it is. The actor Ross Kemp was asked to resign as rector in 2000 for non-attendance and quite rightly too. Students wanted a rector who showed up. And yet, farcically, they have appointed a man who can never show up.

We know that the practical business of the university will go on but that is not the point. In making an attention-seeking stand, the students who voted for Snowden have sacrificed the interests of the wider student population.

And the worst of it is that they have done so when university budgets are under pressure. In other words, at a time when they desperately need a rector, they effectively do not have one.

Contextual targeting label: 
Education

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