​Simon is the perfect choice for Edinburgh University rector - Susan Dalgety

Universities are where many young people disappear into after leaving school and emerge four years later, hopefully wiser, probably in debt, and ready to start their adult life.
Simon Fanshawe, the new rector of Edinburgh UniversitySimon Fanshawe, the new rector of Edinburgh University
Simon Fanshawe, the new rector of Edinburgh University

They are also where great ideas are conceived and ground-breaking research is carried out. They are an integral part of the community they belong to – imagine for a moment Glasgow without its great university on the west side or Aberdeen without the granite splendour of Marischal College.

Edinburgh University is as much a part of the Capital as the Castle, Holyrood Palace and the New Town.

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Founded by the town council in 1583, it is one of the oldest universities in the world. International students from all corners of the globe flock there to study everything from artificial intelligence to moral philosophy.

It has produced some of humanity’s greatest achievements, from Dolly the Sheep, the first animal to be cloned, to anaesthesia which allowed surgery to develop. It is, quite simply, one of the city’s most important institutions.

But it hit the headlines last week for all the wrong reasons when its new Rector was elected.

On paper, Simon Fanshawe is the perfect choice. He had a successful career as a comedian and is now an even more successful campaigner, writer and broadcaster.

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He was a co-founder of the LGBT charity Stonewall, he sat on the board of the Edinburgh Fringe for nearly two decades, and he grew up in the city, attending Davidson’s Mains primary school.

He’s funny, erudite, and has a bulging contacts book. He also did a similar job at Sussex University for six years. What’s not to love?

But a small group of disgruntled staff and students has called for his election to be rejected because Mr Fanshawe – who has an OBE for services to higher education – dares to stand up for women’s sex-based rights.

Words like “outrageous”, “contempt” and “upsetting” have been bandied about.

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This is not the first row over women’s rights to engulf the university. A few months ago, I attended the screening of the film Adult Human Female, and was somewhat surprised to find police officers guarding the route to the ladies’ loo, so heavy was the security.

And there have been murmurings in the press recently about the Principal’s pay packet. Sir Peter Mathieson’s annual remuneration package is a whopping £420,000 a year, a sum described as “exorbitant” by Edinburgh University Students Association, which recently passed a motion calling for him to resign.

In his campaign pitch, Simon Fanshawe promised to work with staff and students to embrace and promote the free exchange of ideas, improve the student experience and build a better university community.

In the grand scheme of things, as the council considers huge cuts to its already broken budget and the city experiences a housing emergency, a spat over the leadership of Edinburgh University may seem irrelevant.

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But the university has nearly 50,000 students and a recent study showed it contributes £7.5 billion a year to the UK economy. It is big business as well as an important place of learning.

The Rector presides over its most powerful decision making body – the University Court. Simon Fanshawe seems the perfect choice for the job.

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