Scotland’s Rectors and elected governance
One of the genuinely unique features of Scottish higher education is the office of Rector in the ‘ancient’ universities. This is a totally different function from that of a Rector in continental European universities, where the holder is the institution’s chief academic officer. In fact, the origins of the office are the same, as originally Scottish Rectors were also heads of their institutions. However, the role evolved over time and, since the late 19th century, has been governed by statute. Since that time Rectors have been the elected representatives of the university’s students (except in Edinburgh, where they are elected by students and staff), and have the right to chair the governing body, or Court.
It is hard to evaluate the usefulness of the office, as students have from time to time adopted a variety of approaches to the elections. A number of celebrities have been university Rectors, including John Cleese, Brian Cox and Stephen Fry. On the whole these have not been active contributors to university affairs. In other cases Rectors have had a more direct involvement, such as Edinburgh’s current Rector, the journalist Iain Macwhirter.
The modern concept of the Rector was based in part on the desire to see greater student input in university affairs, at a time when students were not yet granted membership of governing bodies. Whether this is still useful is an issue being debated in Scotland. Are Rectors an historical curiosity that survives because of the attraction of such an unusual feature? Or could they be retained or even extended as an example of a democratic element in higher education? Or is it time to consider whether the office has outlived its usefulness?