Rectorial review: Alistair Moffat’s term comes to an end

Photo: Celeste Sloman
Photo: Celeste Sloman

With the nominations opening today, Monday 27 October, at 9 am and the campaign period starting on Friday, St Andrews is getting ready to elect its new rector. The main purpose of the role, which is unique to the Scottish ancient universities, is to preside at meetings of the University Court, the University’s highest governing body. Elected by members of the student body since 1858, it is his responsibility to represent the students’ interests. As the three-year term of the current rector, Alistair Moffat, is coming to an end, it is worth reviewing his performance as well as the changes he managed to implement.

According to a guide published by the Scottish Rector’s Group, essential competences of a rector include ‘relevant experience in high level committees, stature in their background and an ability to exercise influence where it matters.’ In his career before taking the post, Alistair Moffat certainly demonstrated these qualities. While still studying at St Andrews for a degree in Medieval History, he was involved in John Cleese’s rectorial campaign in 1970. He therefore has both a long-reaching, personal connection to the university (where he also met his wife) and had had a personal experience of running a successful campaign. Later, in his role as Chancellor’s Assessor on Stirling University Court, he became directly involved in Scottish higher education, further preparing him for the rectorial position. His other experiences include being Director of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1976 and Director of Programs at STV in 1981. Through these posts, he learned the essentials of fundraising and as a director of the Borders Book Festival (a post he held from 2004), he raised over half a million pounds for that particular festival alone. This experience proved especially important for his job at St Andrews, as he served as rector throughout the 600th Anniversary celebrations, which involved the implementation of various development projects at the University. As rector, he made sure that the plans were followed through: the union redevelopment, the fundraising for various research centres and the 600th Anniversary scholarships all mark achievements of the past three years.

Apart from raising funds, one of Mr Moffat’s main concerns has been widening access to the university. As he said in an interview with The Saint at the beginning of his term, ‘It is the students lost to us as well as those here who concern me’. Although the university still repeatedly gets criticised for attracting only a disproportionately small number of applications from lower-income backgrounds, Mr Moffat made significant efforts to improve the situation of financially less well-off students. The most notable example of this is The Rectors’ Fund, established in 2012, by him and his then Rector’s Assessor, Chloe Hill. This fund, designed to make internships affordable for third year students who would otherwise be unable to take up work experience opportunities, has been an unequivocal success. In the year of its establishment, fifteen scholarships of a value of £500 each had been awarded; a year later, the amount was doubled, extending access to internships to thirty students in various fields. Besides the University’s existing financial contributions towards work experience, the project was financed with donations from previous St Andrews rectors and alumni donations, which Mr Moffat managed to secure.

In his election campaign, Alistair Moffat stated the importance of being a ‘working rector,’ meaning someone who does not only jet in for a Court meeting before disappearing until the next one, but also takes a genuine interest in all aspects of University life. His commitment to the student body is shown by the fact that he travelled 100 miles to town every three weeks from his house in the Borders in order to be able to personally engage with the students. While he was away, it was the Rector’s Assessor’s responsibility to respond to the students’ issues, with whom he was in close cooperation.

Criticisms against Mr Moffat are not related to his role as the head of the University Court, but rather to his activities outside of St Andrews. However, as it is equally a rector’s role to represent the student body in each of his actions, the danger that his negative reputation can cause to the University makes it relevant to focus also on a particular scandal, emerging after a radio interview in July 2012. On Radio 4’s Today programme, Moffat spoke as the head of his genetics testing company, BritainsDNA, claiming that the company’s work had uncovered the ‘grandson of Eve.’ He was immediately attacked by statistical geneticists from University College London for making such a sensational, pseudo-scientific statement without proper education in the field of genetics. Mr Moffat defended himself to The Saint, saying that he was trying to make science accessible to the public and he merely made his claims in a radio interview, not an academic journal. However, many still think that his involvement in the genetics business is purely motivated by profit (the company charges up to £250 for a test) and that simplified statements made by him undermine the seriousness of other scientific projects.

Alistair Moffat therefore finishes his term with many positive changes and a slightly tarnished reputation. Now it is the students’ role to elect a new representative, someone who will be able to represent their interests equally as well as – or even better than – Mr Moffat. On Friday 7 November, the final result will be announced. Until then, we can look forward to a campaign period that will hopefully mobilise the student body and result in a high turnout at the elections.

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