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?

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8 Comments on “Scotland’s Rectors and elected governance”

  1. Alan.carr Says:

    Are they not tributes of the people?
    More a republican trait then a democratic one?

  2. Vincent Says:

    Has this person the right to initiate policy. Or halt it for that matter.


  3. Gordon Brown famously held this office once. His experience was that it wasn’t easy to make it work in an activist way.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4683799.stm

  4. Lesley D Says:

    Personally think it is a useful system for the Universities and the students -they get the help and support of usually ‘a famous person’ or celebrity to help with events etc. However in Gordon Brown’s case he used it as stepping stone to his political career. Yet he was famous at the time for being the ‘student rector.’ Don’t see a valid case for not having them and they do raise awareness of student issues with the public etc. So leave well alone would be my advice.

  5. Anna Notaro Says:

    Maybe because I’m interested in ‘celebrity culture’ I have always been intrigued by the phenomenon of the ‘celebrity rector’ as another instance of the increasing ‘brandification’ of academia. Students (and universities’ marketing departments)are very familiar with the world of celebrities (and their impact), hence they might be inclined to consider such appointments as useful to raise the profile of their institution (honorary degrees fall in a similar set of considerations) and yet what remains central for me is the willingness of the individual in question to get ‘involved’ otherwise such appointments are as ephemeral as fame, often, turns out to be..


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