University rector has big shoes to fill and even bigger ideals

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Peter McColl brings impressive green credentials to the post as well as a belief in free education for all

Peter McColl arrives out of breath. As he hurriedly locks his bicycle outside the students’ union on Potterrow, he could easily be mistaken for a scholar dashing to hand in a vital assignment, rushing to make a lecture – or taking advantage of the cut-price bar prices.

Today though, at the spot where the former Edinburgh University student no doubt spent many a happy, happy hour, the 31-year-old is here to speak about being appointed Edinburgh University’s new rector.

It is a post will see him follow in the rather intimidating footsteps of Winston Churchill, Lord Kitchener, the pharmacologist Sir Alexander Fleming and actor Alastair Sim.

Apologising for his appearance having just cycled in from Portobello, the charity manager is certainly living up to his credentials as a Green Party election candidate.

“When the students came to me about the post, I guess they wanted someone who lived locally and who would ensure their voices are heard, and not a celebrity like at some other universities” he says.

“Well, I’m definitely not a celebrity. There are definitely big shoes to fill, although I’m not sure they are really the shoes of Churchill and Kitchener. More those who have held the post in recent years.

“Iain Macwhirter [the political columnist] has done a very good job as an advocate for students, as has Mark Ballard [the former Green Party MSP, now a director at Barnardo’s Scotland].

“In past elections, the students at Edinburgh have voted for the serious candidate who will work for them and ensure their views are heard at the top of the university. It’s not been the celebrities.

“In other universities where they have had celebrity rectors that hasn’t worked out well.

“I still remember when the rector at Glasgow University, Ross Kemp, ended up resigning because he wasn’t turning up because of the workload.”

Peter – who moved to Edinburgh from Belfast aged 18 to study geography – has quite a workload himself, and shuffles three mobile phones from pocket to pocket.

Along with working as a public affairs manager for a charity, he serves on the board of PEDAL – Portobello Transition Town, which is attempting to develop the UK’s first community-owned wind turbine. And he’s still deciding whether to run again as an election candidate for the Green Party, for whom he previously worked as a researcher at Holyrood.

The rectorial election at Edinburgh University has become a media frenzy in recent years, the most notable being Boris Johnson’s Aftershock-fuelled night out in George Street in 2006.

He was pictured in the clutches of several female students, spent a night in Pollock Halls and was drenched in beer during a debate.

This year’s has been a more sedate affair. Although no stranger to elections, Peter has escaped the event due to being appointed unopposed, and has largely escaped the usual fanfare ahead of his three years in the role.

He only learned of the post when approached by a group of students concerned about Edinburgh University’s decision to introduce fees of £9000 per year – or £36,000 for a degree – to those from the rest of the United Kingdom.

As someone who will be face to face with the dons in the University Court, he has strong views on free education.

“I’ve been concerned for a long time about the creeping commercialisation of higher education.

“Almost worse than the introduction of fees themselves, was the underpinning of the Browne report [on higher education] in 2010, which said the purpose of a university education is to enable people to get a job which pays as well as it possible can – not for them to become well-rounded individuals with a better understanding of the world. I believe the value of higher education is becoming a more rounded individual. Personal development will make you more employable.”

Peter supports the Scottish Government position on keeping degrees free for Scottish students, but says the pressure must be kept on to ensure education remains free to all.

He also said it was a mistake on the part of the UK Government to put universities in the position where they were encouraged to introduce and raise fees.

“If you don’t go to university, you may learn practical skills, and that could lead to a good job, but the reality is that the areas which have seen most economic growth in the last 30-40 years have been those with the most graduates.

“If you look at California, which had a free education system which welcomed people from across the United States, the result was public universities like Berkeley becoming some of the best in the world. It’s also led to the birth of places like Silicon Valley. Those opportunities are too important to miss for the UK.”

During Peter’s time at Edinburgh University he took a year out to serve as vice president of the student body Eusa where he worked to open up education to students from poorer backgrounds.

He hopes to return to that work during his time as rector, but has mixed feelings about Edinburgh’s efforts.

“Universities have tried very hard to attract students from non-traditional backgrounds, households where people haven’t gone into higher education, but I think they need to keep trying harder,” he says.

“Edinburgh Uni has put in place a wide range of burseries, but unfortunately it’s gone hand in hand with the introduction of fees at £9000.”

Peter, who has a master’s degree in public policy along with his MA in geography, emphasises the opportunities education can bring, but highlights the attraction of Edinburgh as a place to live.

“The university lends a huge vitality to the city, it’s at the heart of the festival. The students create a real buzz. When you go to places without a university, without the young people working in the bars and out on the streets, and it lacks that hustle and bustle. What Edinburgh really excels at is student life. It’s partly why I came here myself, but perhaps something we don’t focus on enough.”

The lack of an election, and of a public persona, has given Peter a low-key entry into what is regarded as a hugely prestigious role in higher education.While largely escaping going head-to-head with other candidates to persuade 24,000 students and 8000 staff to choose him, he’s also escaped the campaigning and speeches in pubs like Boris Johnson.

He’ll be spending the next few months getting to know the students, but insisted he won’t get carried away.

Peter said: “I’ll be happy to go clubbing, but I’m pretty sure not going to be getting up to any of the antics Boris did. I promise.”