Monday 2 November 2015

University challenge

In his final hours as First Minister in November last year, Alex Salmond famously unveiled a commemorative stone at Heriot Watt University inscribed with his own words.

The gesture was aimed at marking the outgoing FM’s proudest achievement in politics - restoring free higher education – and the stone carried his quote from 2011:
“The rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scottish students.”
One of the policies he was chuffed about was the abolition of the Graduate Endowment fee – a £2k charge levied on folk with degrees.

Political journalists queried the cost of the Clashach sandstone structure - carved and designed by Historic Scotland apprentices - only to be told it cost a paltry £80.

A better line of enquiry might have been to ask why Heriot Watt was chosen to house the Salmond stone.

Emails released under FOI reveal how this Uni was the Scottish Government’s third choice, with officials scrambling around for a venue.

The first option was St Andrews, which is Salmond’s alma mater.
“Our idea is that on November 18, the FM will do a photo opp at a university, possibly St Andrews as it is the FM’s former uni, to mark no tuition fees,” a spin doctor wrote on October 16th.
Five days later, the same press officer revealed that a Plan B was required.
“Our plans to do this at St Andrews have changed a little in that they may not be able to accommodate us....”
The reason, according to the email, was that St Andrews had “a separate campaign at present involving carved paving stones which they are looking to be sponsored”.

In other words, please look elsewhere.

Those with long memories will recall there had been tension between St Andrews University and the Government over claims pressure was put on the institution on independence and higher education policy.

Was this row fresh in the University’s memory when the request to locate the Salmond stone at St Andrews was made? Who knows...

After the St Andrews hiccup, the same batch of emails reveals that the Government was “looking to another university, most probably Strathclyde if they are amenable".

This never materialised either and Heriot Watt was approached.

“I have left a rambling message for you and I apologise for its vagueness!” wrote the Government spinner to a colleague at HW."
The University obliged and the rest is history, or at least a hastily arranged photo-opp. 

Another Government email explained that Heriot Watt was chosen "because the FM has been involved in events in the Middle East in support of their campus there".