student life

How Edward Snowden changed Fresher’s Week

Freshers’ Week is full of odd experiences. Societies on campus you never imagined existed will PR you with leaflets and photo ops, student volunteers will do their best to simultaneously look after you and encourage you to spend all your money on booze, and rival pizza chains will almost start a brouhaha at your university’s main gates (maybe that was just here).

The ancient universities in Scotland (and the University of Dundee) all have a rector position. The rector is elected by the students every three years, with some chosen because of their promises to be an active voice on campus, while others are elected due to their symoblic status.

In the last decade, whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu and Lib Dem MP Charles Kennedy have held the position, with the former taking on a symoblic and absentee role, and the latter being present and elected for two terms. In 2014, whistleblower Edward Snowden was elected in a comfortable victory, winning in the second round with more than double the votes of the candidate in second place.

It is tradition in Freshers’ Week for the rector to address the new students at the freshers’ address. Many speakers, including the university’s principal and the heads of the four student bodies, address a packed crowd, showering them with praise and telling them why they should join their unions and associations during their time at university. So it is a real change in tone when Edward Snowden appears (via Skype, obviously) to talk about the importance of vigilance and action in a world of increasing mass surveillance.

This year, his speech also touched on the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Bill currently making its way through Holyrood, showing that while he may be stuck in Russia, he is not entirely removed from issues impacting University of Glasgow students.



The election process

For those of us who were there when he was elected, and for those of us who are not in this recent wave of freshers, Edward Snowden’s association with the University of Glasgow is still quite a thing to ponder over. Imagine being sat in the audience as a new student to be met with typical speeches from typical university staff, the type of which will be being delivered country-wide all week, only to then be told via Skype-link how we must rise up against spying.

When the time came in 2014 to elect a new rector, there was some division over who would be best suited. Undoubtedly the biggest name on the ballot, Snowden came with an attached political message and fame. The other nominees, consisting of cyclist Graeme Obree, author Alan Bissett, and clergyman Rev Kevin Holdsworth, may not have carried the same notoriety, but, many argued, at least they were there. Bissett’s nationalist Twitter feed will have pissed off a few unionists over the last couple of years, but it is doubtful his face is up in every airport in America with “arrest this man on arrival” printed under them.

It would be mistaken to suggest Snowden won simply because people knew his name. The campaign behind his election was fierce, with people handing out leaflets daily in the run up to the voting date. Support for Snowden even appeared in the Guardian. Some of those on campus handing out leaflets, however, it was heavily speculated did not actually attend the university. There were eyes looking towards the rector election beyond the student body, and many campaigners wanted Glasgow to send a political message that we do not accept the NSA’s actions or the culture of spying on citizens.

Student led activism

Debates mostly came down to the question of what a rector is there to do. If the role is to represent students at the university’s court, as it had been for hundreds of years, voting for someone like Snowden seems like a wasted vote since he is not able to attend. Then again, the university is proud of having elected people such as Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as a political statement in the past. It is one of the clearest ways students can have their voices heard, even if it is in a single action that lasts for three years.

Students love activism. That early adult age is the prime period of your life where you are engaged in everything and passionate about whatever you can get your hands on. In the same year, the University of Glasgow divested from fossil fuels, making it the first university in Europe to do so. The pressure that led to this decision was student-led, and reports in the media on the decision heavily focused on the work the student body had done to ensure that outcome.

It is a wonder what would have happened if Snowden’s nearest rival, Rev Kevin Holdsworth, had been elected. The freshers’ address would not require a highly encrypted call across the world, for a start. Perhaps Rev Holdsworth would have been a familiar face on campus, fighting for the rights of students on a weekly basis.

We will never know, and if nothing else, being a fresher and seeing Edward Snowden address you must be pretty damn cool.

What do you think about Snowden’s speech and his role in Glasgow? Have your say in the comments section below.