Maggie Chapman being installed as rector three years ago. Image, Aberdeen University, fair use.
I have to confess that I laughed. Reading through the reasons Aberdeen university has given for annulling the votes of thousands of its students, you can only marvel at the ways that bureaucrats will try to stifle democracy.
Once I’d got over the mirth, though, I was left with a deep sense of concern about the way that modern universities are being transformed from democratic communities into autocratic businesses.
But first, a bit of context.
Aberdeen, like Scotland's other medieval universities, elects its rector – the chair of the board of governors (known as the ‘court’). Rectorships are important roles, bringing democratic oversight and leadership to some of Scotland’s most powerful institutions and providing unique platforms in Scottish public debate.
They are elected every three years, and Aberdeen has just been through its own vote, where the candidates included the incumbent, Scottish Green Party co-convener Maggie Chapman (who, full disclosure, is a friend), singer and TV presenter Fiona Kennedy who sits on the university’s fundraising committee, Tory MP Andrew Bowie, and a Christian student named Angus Hepburn, most famous on campus for being recorded saying that “I stand against evil known as LGBT”.
Just as polls closed, the university announced that it wouldn’t be revealing the result. There were, apparently, irregularities. The vote was going to be annulled.
Team Chapman – universally assumed to have won a stonking re-election after dominating the campaign – appealed to the elections committee. And the committee declared last week that it has upheld the decision to annul. I’ve seen the minutes of their meeting. For anyone with experience of elections, they are laughable.
They gave two reasons for disregarding the votes of thousands of students, namely: “it was very concerned about the [hostile] conduct of the hustings” and “a significant number of campaign posters had been deliberately removed or covered up”.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
You can watch the full hustings here.
Now, I’ve been to a few such debates at Scottish universities – and been on the stage in a bunch. They are normally raucous, high-energy affairs, where campaign teams cheer on their candidate and throw calculated questions at the opposition. The booing and hissing of political pantomime is not uncommon. By comparison, this one was, if anything, a little more polite. Each of the candidates was given a rigorous grilling, but it was well chaired by the student president, all of the questions were based on honestly held concerns, and candidates were all given a fair chance to respond to the various criticisms thrown at them. It was considerably less hostile than, for example, the House of Commons.
I asked the university to specify what incident caused the election to be annulled. They said “the unacceptable conduct at the hustings concerned campaigners in the audience, and therefore is not visible on the video”, but wouldn’t say what that conduct was. I pointed out that the audience is entirely audible throughout the event, and asked if they could describe the incident. They wouldn’t do so, encouraging me instead to contact the campaign teams.
The Andrew Bowie and the Chapman team both got back. Neither could tell me what incident the university was talking about (Bowie wasn’t at the hustings, and told me he is “in the dark” about all of this). Fiona Kennedy and Angus Hepburn haven’t got back to my requests for information.
I also asked the university whether the election committee had bothered to watch the video of the hustings, or just taken the word of the probably-losing candidates and their teams that it had been unacceptable. The university wouldn’t answer that question. I asked the students’ association if they could tell me what the incident was. They were as baffled as me. I tracked down a couple of students who were there. They, too, were confused as to what the alleged incident might have been.
Then there is the second complaint: posters.
Here is a photo of one of the posters which was supposedly ‘ripped down’.
The Chapman campaign team stuck their posters to cardboard. The picture indicates that the Kennedy team – perhaps as a result of less campaign experience – didn’t take this precaution. Instead, I am told, they sellotaped bits of paper outside, in Aberdeen, in winter. When they discovered the next morning that their posters had disappeared, while team Chapman’s hadn’t, they blamed it not on their own insufficient weather-proofing, but on team Chapman.
The university’s statement presents no actual evidence that team Chapman was guilty of this supposed poster-ripping. I asked them if they had looked at any CCTV footage to confirm that this had happened. They wouldn’t say. I asked if they had spoken to any of the campus cleaners about the fate of these posters. They wouldn’t confirm that they had. Their evidence points to no witness on a busy campus who saw them supposedly pull down any of the hundreds of disappearing posters.
They have, however, determined that, on the balance of probability, the posters were taken down intentionally. Despite the lack of any evidence, without producing a single witness, and despite the obvious explanation that Aberdeen in winter is kinda windy and wet, they have taken it upon themselves to smear a group of their own students in the national media.
Why then was the election annulled? They tell me that “the sheer volume of complaints meant that the conduct of the election fell well short of the standards expected”.
I asked how many there were. The university wouldn’t tell me, but instead referred me to the campaign teams, from whom I managed to get a list. The answer is thirteen. Almost all seem to have come from the various campaign teams, and include such silliness as an objection to a non-student tweeting a link to one of the candidates' website.
I also asked if the returning officer had any experience of running elections, or any training in doing so. The university wouldn’t answer that question.
Before we get to the significance of all of this, there is one more detail. The university has refused to release the result of the annulled election.
Speaking to openDemocray, Lawson Ogubie, student president at Aberdeen, said: "At AUSA we believe students have a right to transparency and clear communication from the University at all times. For this reason we have asked Aberdeen University in an open letter to release the results of the annulled rector election and have stated that withholding this information is fundamentally undemocratic. It is vital that the student body is informed and that future student engagement is not harmed by the events of the election.”
To understand what’s probably going on here, it’s important to look at the broader context. When I sat on Edinburgh’s university court a decade ago, the university was very happy to allow the rector to chair the meetings. For us student representatives, that was key. It meant that the institution could never gloss over things we thought were important. It meant that the governing body of the university was less likely to be captured or hoodwinked by the people it was meant to be managing.
In recent years, Aberdeen’s management has resisted this democratic oversight. Unlike Scotland's other ancient universities, it has tried to stop the elected rector from chairing the meeting they are elected to chair. In this document, from 2016, the university made clear that it objected to the fact that Chapman insisted on her right to preside over meetings – a right which was afforded unquestioningly to the two Edinburgh rectors I sat on court with there.
For a number of the students I've spoken to at Aberdeen, it's hard to shake the feeling that the anullment of the election may well have more to do with the fact that, in her three years as rector, Chapman has taken the students' side on issues from rent rises to fossil fuel divestment to mental health provision than anything to do with weather-beaten posters or silent happenings at hustings.
The role of rector might seem like a minor matter. But it sits at the front line of one of the key struggles of the modern era. I always think that neoliberalism is best understood as the process of abolishing democracy from more and more aspects of our lives.
Radical free market dogma dictates that, instead, all of our institutions should be run like corporations: controlled from the centre by highly paid and infinitely wise ‘management’, and disciplined by the market. The future lies in democratic institutions: not just elected government, but an expansion of democracy to all of the key bodies which make decisions about our lives. Rectorships are one of Scotland’s – Britain’s – few remaining reminders that we are capable of organising ourselves as democratic communities. As the Scottish rector’s group put it a decade ago:
“The ancient universities were conceived as communities, in which the students were the main interest group.
“The best way to ensure that their interests were always at the forefront of the minds of those actually running the university was to allow the students to elect the chairman (sic) of the Court.”
Universities are some of Scotland’s most powerful institutions. They help to shape economic strategy, driving innovation as well as education. Our major cities are dominated by them. Per capita, we have more in the world’s top 200 rankings than any other country but Luxemburg. They are the main reason people move here from abroad and they are perhaps our pre-eminent representatives to the world.
It should therefore matter to all of us how our institutions are run. And we should be deeply concerned about the shenanigans of the university administration at Aberdeen.