The General Council of the University of Edinburgh

Report By Professor Charles Swainson Convener of the Business Committee of the General Council

The General Council provides graduates with a continuing voice in the management of the University’s affairs, and every graduate automatically becomes a member. Academic staff and members of the University’s governing body, the University Court, are also members of the General Council. It meets twice a year and has the right to comment on matters affecting the University’s prosperity and wellbeing. For more information on the work of the General Council, visit

I am pleased to report on the activities of your Business Committee since writing prior to the June 2014 Half-Yearly meeting. The June visit to Toronto was another successful away meeting and we are grateful to our Secretary, Mike Mitchell, your Public Affairs Standing Committee and colleagues in Development and Alumni who made all the arrangements.

The University held a stimulating debate on the question of independence and devolution in Scotland. Vice-Principal Professor Charlie Jeffery gave his research-driven insights into factors that might motivate the “don’t knows”, thus stimulating a lively debate and comments from Canadian colleagues including discussion of the experience in Quebec. A very good afternoon was followed by Honorary Graduations in the Art Gallery of Ontario, conferred on Garrett Herman, a bibliophile with a considerable Charles Darwin collection, and Beverly McLachlin, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

A gala dinner was hosted by the University in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. There was an additional Honorary Graduate, the well-known author Margaret Atwood, who gave a witty and delightful speech after dinner. The University also signed a formal agreement with the University of Toronto to increase cooperation between two great institutions, both ranked 17 on a recent world ranking of universities.

Your General Council Half-Yearly Meeting was held in the University of Toronto. The Principal gave an account of the international developments in our University, the aspiration to increase overseas students to 50 per cent and the corresponding increase in resources needed to support these students. He outlined new approaches to enhancing the student experience and encouraging every student to be a researcher. Professor Steve Hillier, Vice–Principal International, gave a comprehensive account of the international reach of the University, much of it achieved during his tenure. It was a good time to hear how far your University has progressed in international terms, and how much effort your Principal and others have put into that.

Your Standing Committees have concluded their activities for the 2013-14 session. Your Academic Standing Committee discussed new approaches to enhancing student learning with Professor Ian Pirie, Assistant Principal Learning and Development.

Your Constitutional Standing Committee completed its work on a private paper, Scotland’s Future Constitutional Arrangements, which was sent to the University Court in July. It set out the views of your Business Committee on the issues to be managed with constitutional change. Now that we have a clear majority in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom, we will need to consider the risks in any proposed devolution settlement. The UK Prime Minister and leaders of the other political parties were clear in their commitment to early proposals for further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, including taxation, and these will impact on the higher education sector.

Your Finance and Services Standing Committee met with the former Director of HR, Sheila Gupta, and discussed the University’s commitment to staff development and appraisal and how this relates to the teaching and research aims in the Strategic Plan.

We have welcomed new members to the Committee this session: Philip Mawer, a former Parliamentary Ombudsman and Students’ Association President; Sarah Morgan, an entrepreneur; Sam Trett, a former Sports Union President; David Houston, and Dorothy Macleod. The Convener of your Public Affairs Standing Committee, Simon Fairclough, has completed his co-opted term. Mr Fairclough helped the Committee through a period of transition, and I am delighted that Matt McPherson, a former Students’ Association President, will be the next Convener. Bruce Ritson has left also, after a distinguished time leading the Academic Affairs Standing Committee, and he will be replaced very ably by Stuart Macpherson, a former Postgraduate Dean. We bade farewell after 13 years to Ann Sutherland who has been a great supporter of the General Council. Luise Locke and Libby Morris also retired and I am grateful for their support of the Business Committee despite busy professional lives.

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