Address to the Welcome Ceremony, Edinburgh University Freshers’ Week 2012

Welcome to Edinburgh, and to the University of Edinburgh.

I address you as Rector. An interesting position and one that tells you a great deal about this institution and Scottish Higher Education more generally. Rectors are directly elected by students and staff. They Chair the University’s governing body, the Court. They are a reminder of what George Davie called “the democratic intellect.” This was the term he used to describe the culture of the 19th Century Scottish University.

It is particularly appropriate given that we are here in the room where the re-convened Scottish Parliament met for its first 6 years.

The University of Edinburgh was never an institution solely for the rich. Unlike the ancient Universities in England the University of Edinburgh was an institution devoted to fostering the intellectual life of the city and the nation. At the heart of this institution was a commitment to what we would now call popular education.

Education was provided to those who showed promise. Not just those who could afford to pay.

Not that that education flinched in its commitment to rigour. Possibly the greatest founding figure in British philosophy, David Hume was schooled in this University and in this tradition. For the Americans among you, you may be interested to know that Arthur St Clair, the penultimate President of the Continental Congress also attended Edinburgh University.

This tradition of education for those who could benefit from it rather than just those very rich who could afford it led to such intellectual fervour that Edinburgh could host a renaissance in the 18th Century to equal all others. By offering education to all, Scotland was able to produce some of the most extraordinary thinkers, scientists and intellectuals in history.

So profound was this legacy that Arthur Herman was able to make the slightly hyperbolic claim that the Scots invented the modern world. In conjunction with a near-universal scheme of parish schools Scotland became the world’s first literate nation.

This intellectual fervour manifested itself in a collegiate governance that, from the mid-19th Century led to the direct election of Rectors. I am here to make sure that your voice is heard at the very highest levels of the University, and I look forward to meeting you over the coming days and weeks.

The concept of Rectorship has been so successful that earlier this year a Scottish Government commissioned report suggested the creation of directly elected chairs of court at all Scottish Universities.

And if you’re here until 2015 you’ll get to participate in a Rectorial election!

You are very welcome, then, to join us as the inheritors of this legacy of great engagement with the city and the world. You will hear how you can get involved with sports and societies, with your students’ association and with your city.

I wish you well in your time here. Enjoy learning at a wonderful, democratic, institution. Get involved with societies. Help to build the great popular tradition of this institution and this city. It will give you back much more than you give it.

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