Another Edinburgh revolt: staff and students elect a radical rector

Angi Lamb recounts her experience of managing Ann Henderson’s successful rectorial campaign

My participation began with an email to Ann Henderson a week before rectorial nominations closed on 26 January 2018. I’d just retired the previous year, after 27 years working at the university and serving as an active trade unionist. A former colleague had asked me if I could think of anyone to stand for rector, as no one had yet been nominated. The hope was preferably for a woman, to be only the second out of 52 previous rectors since the Universities Scotland Act 1858. The only one, Muriel Gray, served between 1988 and 1991. In addition, 60% of the previous 52 were titled in some way — such as Gladstone or Kitchener.

The Rector is elected for a period of three years with a primary duty to preside at the university’s governing body, the University Court. Edinburgh is the only one of the ‘ancient’ universities where staff can vote for the Rector, and has the largest electorate with over 55,000 staff and students.

Ann accepted the invitation to stand. I was delighted to have a leading role as her campaign manager, allowing Ann to focus on meeting and listening to as many people as possible — in person, on our blog, Twitter, Facebook and other media.

Although much smaller than the other candidate, Marco Bauder’s team, ours was more experienced. Ann is a seasoned campaigner which shone through during the campaign. The ‘dream’ team had two talented young campaigners, Emily and Vijay, designing our eye-catching leaflets and posters. The campaign was physically challenging. Around 30 volunteers — the backbone and unsung heroes of any campaign — distributed leaflets and hung posters around some of the University’s 700+ buildings across the city. We were aware of the restrictions on political posters, where the other candidate’s team wasn’t and subsequently had to remove them and this probably helped us. Posters were only allowed in Bristo Square and on noticeboards or doors within university property.

We gained crossover support from staff who, at any other time would have campaigned for Ann anyway, were rightly taking industrial action over proposed pension changes. Leaflets were handed out on the picket lines. On strike days, we visited as many as we could with Ann speaking at a lunchtime rally just before voting opened.

We had a strict budget for election expenses, funded by donations from individuals and other bodies such as the Edinburgh TUC. We had to be smart about where we spent, 50% on leaflets and posters, 20% on Facebook ads which (was a novelty to both of us).

A consistent campaign trail concern from all sides was about housing affordability and availability for both students and staff. Student accommodation can range from the £320 per month from Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op to over £1,000 pm privately. There are considerable tensions around the University and city with the perception of student housing taking priority over affordable housing with no clear advantages to anyone other than investors.   Photo of Edinburgh City

Other significant issues include staff workload issues, where we asked for a university wide staff survey which took place for the first time this past autumn. The impact is not only on staff, but as students eloquently suggested: ‘Your working conditions are our learning conditions’.

For many students, particularly for the 45% non-UK students, fees with an annual average of £21,000 are of high concern around affordability and a correct perception of subsidising other activities within the University.

Most people in the University are not aware of governance arrangements so we were commonly met with blank stares around mention of the University Court and Rector: “What does the Rector do?” In addition to the formalities, the Rector can ask difficult questions, and with other members of Court hold University management to account while deciding upon institutional strategy in the three major areas of people, finances and infrastructure. Education strategy is the provenance of the University Senate.

The last week of campaigning was Flexible Learning Week where many students were away from Edinburgh. Ann focused on meeting medical and vet students who remained, and staff. Sunday night we met with many returning students at Pollock Halls.

Scottish politicians from Green, Labour and SNP publicly endorsed Ann’s campaign as did other public figures reflecting her broad based appeal and in particular her lifelong commitment to equality and diversity.

Ann won 77% of the vote and greeted this with: ‘Thank you for all your support. I am proud to be your new Rector!’ The snow closed Edinburgh that night for a couple of days – a welcome rest period after three weeks campaigning.

I know Ann primarily from the regular Women’s Dinner at the Scottish Parliament where after being elected she was the guest speaker and received a well-deserved standing ovation. It was a privilege to campaign for Ann and subsequently watch her chairing Court with aplomb – she has a fabulous capacity for detail and timing.

Angi Lamb worked at the University of Edinburgh from 1990 to 2017, was the elected staff member on its Court between 2013 and 2017, served on the UCU union’s NEC between 2009 and 2014, and is Rector’s Assessor for 2018 to 2021.