Start of term interview with university Rector, Ann Henderson

Ann Henderson was elected Rector of the University of Edinburgh at the end of February, having graduated from here back in 1978. We got a chance to sit down with the former editor of The Student to discuss her ambitions as Rector, current issues at the university and her plans for the future.

Why did you decide to run for election to the post of Rector? 

I was approached a couple of weeks before the closing date by the joint trade union committee. I hadn’t been really thinking about it before then, but we had a discussion, and I thought it sounded like a really interesting opportunity. The political situation I suppose around the university, with the industrial action and the UCU [University and College Union] raising a number of issues around education, was coming up so it was an interesting time. 

I am a former graduate of the university, I did a Sociology and Social Administration degree which finished in 1978 – a long time ago! I haven’t really been around the university very much since so it was interesting to see how much things have changed since then, and how some things are still the same.

I should point out that there hadn’t been a female Rector since 1988 when Muriel Gray was the first female Rector. So there seemed to be a shortage of woman candidates and I thought that it needed to be addressed.

What do you think the biggest change has been since you graduated here?

A very big change is the size of the student population and the size of the institution and that’s obviously [occurred] in relatively recent years. Moray House School of Education and the Edinburgh College of Art… things are more badged or come in under the university and that wasn’t the case. 

There are over 40,000 students attached to the university here now. There were about 10,000 probably in the 1970s, so that’s a massive difference in terms of how the place functions and how you organise and how you hear what students and staff are saying. 

When I was a student I had a small grant, not a loan. Fees were paid [for], I worked part-time, but was able to support myself through university with that and the student grant as well. I think that’s very different. Now, for British students… Scottish students are not paying fees directly but the allowance system is [still] very different.

What personal qualities and experiences do you think make for a successful Rector? 

I chair the university court meetings, the senior governing body in the university, so I think it’s important that it is done competently, fairly and efficiently. To do that requires a bit of knowledge obviously of the different structures and governances within the university. Also you need to know and understand where some of the staff issues are being raised. As I said I was… supported by the trade unions in putting my name forward. [I have] regular contact with the joint trade union committee, I speak to staff as well as students when I am around the different campuses and I set up monthly meetings with the Sabbatical Officers at EUSA [Edinburgh University Students’ Association]. I think that’s important as well. 

This will be the first academic year that starts with you in the Rector position. Do you have any particular aims and ambitions for the upcoming year?

I would like to see some movement on the university’s commitment to supporting student parents and staff who are parents. That can be developed in a number of different ways and I know there are different working groups in the university doing that at the moment, but it’s very visible for me having looked at other large institutions that this university – employing over 16,000 staff and having over 40,000 students – doesn’t have any significant nursery or creche provision. Other than the very well run facility out at King’s Buildings, which is beyond the price reach of most of the students I have spoken to. But it’s not just about childcare provision. It’s about everything that goes around supporting younger and older parents. Be it flexible working, whether that’s applied in a fair and equal way to all grades of staff, whether there is accomodation made for young parents, young men or young women whose lives change during the course of their degrees but they want to continue their studies and what support is in place across the whole institution to help them. 

I think it is also part of the Widening Participation agenda. I am interested in trying to help the university and the students achieve a better environment, and so that would hopefully see something change. 

I want to hold on to some of the vision which I really believe [in] which is that education is for everyone, and has to be provided and facilitated for everyone to receive, deliver, enjoy, and good conditions for everyone that is doing that. But some things you can’t do in two and a half years.

There are also some interesting stuff going on around housing. Student accommodation is quite controversial in the city as a whole, and how the university is perceived in the city at the moment. Some of that is a consequence of private developers buying small plots of land and building purpose-built student accommodation which isn’t managed by the university, but is often perceived by other citizens in the city that it belongs to the university. So I was quite pleased that the last court meeting took a decision to, longer term, go back towards the model which I remember more from Pollock Halls and a number of the other halls that are around the city  that are really well staffed and serviced by ResLife that belong to the university. They’re a better environment for students, so I think we will see a change coming there, but there is a lot of tension and hopefully as rector I can be part of the discussions about what can be done to resolve some of those tensions.

Is there anything that your predecessor in the role, Steve Morrison, worked on that you wish to continue or believe that you could build on further?

One of the schemes that Steve was very keen to promote and that I gather is a bit more bedded in now is around alumni contributing to a mentoring scheme, and being able to volunteer to help students through their degrees and as they come to graduation. 

I think that’s a great idea. I know there’s a need for it, and I’m sure many of the former graduates from the University of Edinburgh want to help in some way, so it’s nice to find a way of helping which is quite practical. 

All the Rectors have taken an interest in student experience and student life. I know Steve tried to make sure that voice was heard so I really think that’s part of my job. 

I will be doing occasional ‘meet the rector’ sessions at different campuses, and that hopefully would allow me to chat to staff and students and tackle the weaker parts of the student experience scoring. Secondly, I will try to do a blog on a fairly regular basis. I will report on what I’ve been doing, meetings I’ve been, who I’ve met or different ideas that have come through the conversations. That means another way that people can contact me as well. As the rector I have had some quite interesting messages in already since I was elected with ideas that student and staff have, or they are not sure where to raise them and I can help pass it on to the right person.

These past 12 months have seen increased scrutiny of how universities are run in the wake of the UCU strikes. How important do you think it is that university leadership, both here and further afield, are held to account by both students and staff?

Yes, I think it’s important. The governance structure in any large organisation is quite complicated sometimes, but it should be clear where concerns can be raised and I think that, during the UCU strikes – particularly with the way in which both students and staff conducted themselves through having open discussions on the picket lines, the teach outs, the willingness to have a dialogue on ‘what do we all want, as citizens, from our higher education system?’ 

That is what leadership of the university says it is addressing and should be addressing, keeping the conversation going. So yes, of course accountability is very important. 

There have been discussions of further strikes at some universities across the country. If this were to happen, how would you work with academic staff who choose go on strike? Do you think the university learned from the experience of last semester?

If there is further industrial action as a result of a majority view of the staff of any of the relevant recognised trade unions, then I will be standing alongside those staff on the picket line and learning about their issues, and helping to promote their claim, and speaking in their support.

The university is made up of all the people who work in it. It’s not something that isn’t us. That’s what I felt was kind of the message from the experience of watching students and staff work together and discuss issues together in February and March. During the UCU dispute. The university and the higher education system in Scotland is ours. It’s for the public good… that was one of the slogans wasn’t it; “we are the university”. I think there is a willingness to have that conversation, [this] is what I think came from earlier in the year. Hopefully that will continue.

Edinburgh Labour Students have been critical about your support of Peter Willsman’s campaign to be elected to the National Executive Committee of the UK Labour party, after he was recorded making anti-semitic remarks. They also picked up on your lack of response to a call from the Jewish Labour Movement to support the party adopting the full International holocaust Remembrance Act (IHRA) definition of anti semitism, which has since been adopted in full. Where do you stand on this issue now and what do you say to students who have expressed concerns or questions about this?

I support the framework in which the university operates, which is against racism and anti semitism and discrimination, on campus and in society in general. That has always been my position, [that] wasn’t in doubt. The debate within the Labour party, although it was played out across the media, was a debate in the Labour party. Most political parties, unfortunately, haven’t addressed the question. The House of Commons Select Committee that looked at antisemitism, arising from an enquiry in 2016, made a number of recommendations around the IHRA definition and suggested additional clauses [to be] adopted by all political parties as the best way to proceed. In fact, that’s what the Labour party National Executive Committee (NEC), in my understanding, was trying to do with its discussions in July. The way it has played out in the media and in the party is not directly a matter for the rector in that sense.

I can say that there have been no concerns or issues raised. I checked with the Principal’s Office as well, and there have been no recent concerns raised at all on any unease or uncertainty or fear on campus, which is a good position to be in. Going back to what I said at the beginning, that… making sure there is not anti semitism [or] racism.

Anti semitic comments operating on campus doesn’t appear to be an issue and it has not been raised with me at all in my capacity as rector. The Labour party has made it’s decision, and now the discussion is still continuing. I know it is from the pages of the press this week, so we’ll see [what happens]. The Labour party conference is coming up at the end of the month. It may well be discussed there, I don’t know. That’s for the Labour party members to decide. Edinburgh Labour Students, like every other Labour party member, has a place where they can have that discussion. I would be concerned if there were any sort of issues or concerns on campus.

I will be and am part of that voice that makes the safest possible space for all our students and staff. That’s the position across the board, and the internal politics of the Labour party shouldn’t impinge on my role as rector.

What are your plans or thoughts on expanding diversity in the student body, in terms of nationality and financial background?

Having come back into university just now, compared to when I was a student forty years ago, it’s quite excitingly more diverse. 

You can feel it among the staff as well. The quality monitoring shows up that there is more diversity in some areas than others, but the general mood around the university is exciting. It’s encouraging. Some of the international schemes are fantastic. I think there are things we can do, like with the housing policy, to make sure that students get a chance to meet each other and mix together.

When The Student interviewed the Principal back in January, it had recently been revealed that the University of Edinburgh has a larger surplus budget than all of the other universities in Scotland combined. During the Rector election debates in February you addressed fund management at the university. Where do you think this extra money should be invested? What are the priorities as you see them?

I think that the points I made earlier about some serious approach to supporting parents, and also some of the questions around housing and student housing and meeting the needs of the increased number of students who are here compared to forty years ago . I’m sure that’s where some of the investment will go and I would support that.

Another thing I would mention that I thought was quite good, or that needs to be built on, is the university’s commitment earlier in the year to the living lage. The university is a living wage employer, a Scottish Living Wage [£8.75 per hour] employer, but the university has now made a commitment to role that out further down the supply chain, down different people who have contracts with the university. So I would hope that funds can be found to make sure that everybody, including through the Students Association and different contracts that are organised… that we have as our minimum standard good contracts, good employment conditions, good wages and all the conditions of employment that come with a more secure job. [This will] make for a better workforce and students on part-time contracts need some security around that as well. So there are some things there that money could be wisely used for.

I think the wider question that came up a lot during the election campaign was a feeling that it wasn’t very transparent how money was spent or where decisions were made. I guess that’s not for me to resolve in the role as chair of the court, but certainly would be something where I’m happy to continue to ask questions and encourage maximum transparency. I think that’s pressure coming also from the wider world. There is a lot of scrutiny on the higher education sector at the moment anyway, so I would expect Edinburgh to play its part in being as transparent as it can about how money is being spent so that staff and students don’t feel like they can’t see and don’t know.

What are your plans or thoughts on expanding diversity across the student body, both in terms of nationality and financial background?

Having come back into university just now… compared to when I was a student forty years ago, it’s quite excitingly more diverse. You can feel it among the staff as well. The quality monitoring shows up that there is more diversity in some areas than others, but the general mood around the university is exciting. It’s encouraging. Some of the international schemes are fantastic. I think there are things we can do, like with the housing policy, to make sure that students get a chance to meet each other and mix together. There should be spaces for staff to meet each other … [but] i don’t feel there is a problem. There are really good initiatives that I have seen like peer support or proofreading. I think it’s a fantastic scheme.

There are probably things we can do better and there is a shortage of some of the supports that could be put in place, but some of the work we have been discussing with the Vice President for Education [Diva Mukherji] is interesting about visibility in the curriculum. We have been in the library this morning and some of the work they were doing with their collections. I’m particularly interested in women’s stories and lives around the university, and making that more visible [means that] then there is a chance to really make a bit of a difference with that. So I’m interested in some of those initiatives. That applies to BME [Black & Minority Ethnic] representation as well. There are just a lot of untold stories and it would be good to get them out there a bit more.

Finally, what message do you have for new students arriving at the university this September?

Enjoy your time. Enjoy your time in Edinburgh. Enjoy your time studying. Put something in, you will get a lot out. Students come here to be citizens in Edinburgh, and we work alongside the citizens of Edinburgh. 

We are part of the community, not something separate. I’d say to students, speak to your neighbour, get to know your local shop, support the local cafes and be part of the city. Take up the volunteering opportunities that are there. Do things while you are in university that are wider than only your course. 

 

Image: Peter Dibdin

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