Rectorial address

RectorInstalled2018Image credits: University of Edinburgh/Douglas Robertson

Thank you – to the Principal, Eleri, Harriet, and a big welcome to everyone that has come here today

I’m really glad that members of my family, and neighbours and friends have been able to join us too.

I hope that you will all have an enjoyable afternoon.

Take time after the formal part of the ceremony, to talk with each other and to look around at the different exhibits.

We will all go away from here having learned something we did not know already! I wanted to try to share some of the enthusiasm, interest, and commitment that I’ve been introduced to, since I took up this position.

Earlier this year, I was elected as Rector by staff and students, having been encouraged by the trade union reps here to accept nomination.

(As the Principal explained…)

Five of the Scottish Universities have Rector positions, although Edinburgh is the only one in which staff have a vote, along with the students.

The Rector chairs the senior governing body at the University, known as the University Court, and meets with students and staff across the different Schools –able to add a voice to any concerns, and to promote some of the excellent work going on.

The 2018 Rectorial election campaign may have been unusual, in that it largely took place on the picket line.

The UCU, the trade union representing many of the academic staff, was in dispute with Universities UK over the security and the future of the USS pension scheme.

Picket lines and a student occupation of the Library in George Square – A warm coat and a megaphone were essential!

Whilst it was undoubtedly a difficult time for staff and students affected by the dispute, there was also a much wider discussion going on.

A discussion about the future and purpose of higher education, about the types of engagement students have with the institution in which they are studying, and about how decisions are made with regard to workplace pension schemes.

Pensions to which workers have contributed and which are, in effect, deferred wages.

The slogan ‘Your working conditions are our learning conditions’ summed up the Students Association support – and the teach outs on the picket lines showed a very flexible approach to learning and teaching.

Everyone wishes the University to be the best place to learn, to study, to teach, to work.

PHO_8055 (1)That means taking time to hear each other’s concerns, being open to making improvements together, and encouraging involvement in strong effective representation – be that through the programme reps scheme, through collective trade union voice, or through the Sports Union and the Students Association and Student Council.

In an earlier election campaign for the President of the Students Association here in 1977, my leaflets had some similar themes:

  • Education as a right not a privilege
  • Effective student representation
  • Against the rising fees for overseas students
  • Standing alongside university staff facing redundancies
  • Building links with the wider community in Edinburgh
  • And finally – full nursery provisions…….

That election campaign was unsuccessful for me – so I’m very glad to have been elected this time!

I’m particularly looking forward to picking up on those last two points

  • On strong links with the wider community in Edinburgh,
  • And of childcare and better support for parents and carers, whether students or staff across all grades, during my time as Rector.

By a rather strange coincidence, on exactly this date, 5th October, in 1974, I had just started at the University as a student myself, and was at the Societies Fair in the afternoon.

In those days the first week of term was early October, always marked by autumn sunshine. Same as today.

At the Societies Fair I signed up for a number of new activities, including the Archery Society and Children’s Holiday Venture.

Through both societies, I met students from other Colleges and Schools, and from other parts of the country – and did not take up archery long term…….

My Director of Studies, here today, Neil Fraser, guided me patiently through the next four years, as I threw myself into student political life, societies and campaigns, community activities, editing the Student newspaper, and working part time in Sandy Bell’s bar.

I was less familiar with the Library, and essay deadlines, than was probably desirable.

But I completed my course in 1978 and went off to do many other things, hopefully sharing what I’d learned – and continuing to learn myself.

At the Activities Fair this year, one of my favourite new Student Societies was the Friends of the Postcard Association.

What a lovely idea. Keeping in touch with students in their year abroad, or on placement, or just to say hello –

Postcards could even be used to keep in touch with your family….

So I’m going to ask you all to do one thing from today – please take away one or two postcards to send –

There are some at the University’s Centre for Research Collections stall here.

Apart from helping to keep the Royal Mail in business, important if we are to protect a universal service provision for our post –

There will definitely be someone out there who will be very pleased to be remembered, keeping in touch makes a difference.

My mother was a student here, at this University, immediately after the War. She studied Spanish. We still have her letters home to her own parents, from her year abroad, in Spain in 1948. That correspondence was important to both my mother, and her parents, keeping on touch during that year.

Edinburgh University has been here for a while– some skilled craftsmanship still evident in the older buildings and this beautiful library.

The University was founded in 1583 – not then called a University, that came later in the 1680s, but known as the ‘tounis college’. It was absolutely linked into the Edinburgh Town Council.

There is some more information about those early days here, with the Centre of Research Collections display –

The Town Council did its best to keep the student population in order, and as the university grew, a close relationship continued between the city and the University.

Today we look to the City Deal and also the other developments for the University, with the bioQuarter, the Edinburgh Futures Institute, and the challenges facing us all in developing a housing policy for Edinburgh and surrounding areas, that actually meets the needs of everyone.

For many families, growing up in Edinburgh also means growing up with the university – whether through direct employment, through studying, or through sharing community and neighbourhood space.

NIK_7322My father, Bill Henderson, – spent his childhood years in the 1930s were spent in a flat in Summerhall Square, by the old Dick Vet College.

He used to tell us that the servitors in the Dick Vet College would let him and his brother Roy peek in to the courtyard to see various animals –

There was a tale about being taken to see an elephant there – I’m not sure about that, but the Archives in the Library may be able to tell us!

NIK_7324 (1)Much later in life, my father joined the board at Edinburgh University Press and I’m really pleased that colleagues from the Press are here today.

During retirement, still living in Newington, my father’s day often started at 6am with a 40 minute walk around the grounds at Kings Buildings, becoming a familiar face to the University staff there.

It’s a reminder that the University campuses are spaces open to, and enjoyed by, many people, another asset for us all.

There are evening classes, public lectures, and many different campuses.

My mother Jean Henderson taught in the Spanish Department for most of her working life.

That’s where I learned that Departmental Secretaries know everything – and are extremely skilled at multi tasking………

As children we would sometimes head over to the 13th floor in the David Hume Tower after school, to wait until mum had finished teaching, no doubt distracting other staff from doing their work.

Various Spanish language assistants were introduced to us, sometimes babysitting – and some families from Spain still in touch with us today.

In fact, in October 2015, my son and I went out to Valencia to attend the wedding of the daughter of one of the Spanish families from my mother’s time working in the University here. It is lovely to still have these connections.

This is very much an international University too. Edinburgh Global Community leads on the international strategy and works with so many of our international students.

This week marked the 50th anniversary of the Europa Institute, which has been contributing to the debates about the future of the European Union, and the need for continued cooperation as we go forward.

We are also very aware of the challenges posed by the ‘hostile environment’ for non-EU international students.

Collaboration across borders must become more important not less.

Reducing energy consumption, tackling climate change and plastic waste, to promote active travel – the Sustainability Awards earlier this year certainly raised my own awareness of how the University staff and students were working together to make a difference.

And the huge number of community projects supported and advertised through Edinburgh Local, and Enactus, supporting student activities across the city.

Supporting also community projects across the world, including a project in a village in India, initiated by students here, in Edinburgh.

We walk the same streets, use the same buses, our children attend the same schools, (and a welcome to those from James Gillespie’s High School who are here today too)

We use the same National Health Service, we live side by side –

  • 40,000 students
  • 15,000 staff

That’s a lot of people. Let’s work together.

The role of Rector comes with some ceremony around it as you can see.

And there is a certain irony as I stand here today in this fine gown, having not attended my own graduation in 1978, seeking to avoid ceremony.,,..

But at the end of the day, we all have many roles in our lives – look beyond what you first see, we all have many different identities, and different skills to offer.

Don’t be put off by those first impressions – this is your space too.

Share what you know, what you have learned – and look out for those around you, as everyone needs a hand at some point in their lives.

And there are people who can help, some of whom I have met now – including the Advice Place and their amazing staff; and initiatives such as the Global Compassion Initiative and the Listening Project. Just ask.

This year – 2018 – marks the 100th anniversary on some women getting the vote.

Here I would like to give a special mention to the work done through Edinburgh College of Art, with students, and women in the justice system including prisoners in Cornton Vale – the banner that was made for the Processions 2018 event, when thousands marched in Edinburgh and across the country on 10th June, was wonderful. A tribute to everyone involved, and a great example of the university working with the wider community.

I would like to look at Frances Simson who was one of the first eight women to graduate from the University of Edinburgh in 1893.

She was a suffragist, taking the argument for the right to vote to Westminster in the early 1900s alongside Chrystal MacMillan and others.

She was a former warden at the Masson Hall of Residence for Women Students, which had previously been on the site where the Library in George Square now stands.

David Masson, was a Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature at Edinburgh University, over 150 years ago.

In 1867 he called for women to be given the same education opportunities as men.

He said ‘Till this is done our nation is unjust to half its members and exists spiritually, intellectually and in every other respect at but half its possible strength’

Definitely had a point, and an example of some of the forward thinking at the University.

There are women breaking new ground in science, law, medicine, genetics, mathematics, social policy, social care, sport, early years, teaching, outdoor learning and sustainability, film, and art – in every field you can think of.

We all know some of these women, and the work that is going on with the Principal’s support to diversify the art collection in Old College, and more widely in the equality strategy for the Libraries and Universities Collection, is very welcome.

Visibility for women, in all our diversity, is very important.

Yet female staff remain under represented at Professorial level, and over represented on insecure contracts, particularly for BME women. Some inequalities still to be addressed.

Since 1869, there have been 52 Rectors at Edinburgh University, and only one of them female.  That was Muriel Gray, elected in 1988.

Why so few women?

Having looked at all that women do, now and in the past,

I conclude that maybe women have quite simply been too busy.

Maybe I should mention the CHAIR. There was a custom whereby the students carried the Rector in on the Chair. That’s not happening!  There are some traditions that do not need to be continued.

I believe Tam Dalyell also refused this offer – being less than confident that he would not be dropped –

We are still trying to find out the origins of this chair – but I can report that it is safely downstairs, in the Quad, and we’ll be taking some photographs down there immediately after the speeches, if you wanted to join us.

As some of you know, I worked for British Rail for fifteen years, as station staff, a train guard, and latterly as a train driver.

I learned a lot there, which I’m happy to share at another time.

When I was training to be a driver, the instructors told me one of the most important, and hardest, things to learn, was knowing when to stop.

I worked on freight locomotives, diesel multiple units, learning the skills required for the train driver’s job, working in and around the Glasgow and central Scotland area.

Knowing when to stop seems to be a useful transferable skill – so I will bring my remarks to an end now.

In closing, I would like to quote from Audre Lorde, who was a wonderful American poet, feminist and civil rights activist –

‘We must be the change we wish to see in the world’

Thank you for being here today, and thank you to all those staff and students who have welcomed me in, and shown me round.

I’m looking forward to my time here, working with you all, to be that change.



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