The end of the year sees the closing of another chapter in St Andrews University’s long and illustrious history as Principal Louise Richardson closes her office door for the last time after just seven years.
Unlike some of her predecessors at St Andrews who notched up decades in office, Professor Richardson thinks seven years is just about right.
As she moves on to head up Oxford University, she is in reflective mood – about her time at St Andrews,how she will miss the place – “This is such a unique and wonderful place it does imprint you”, about students, education in Scotland and, just days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, her specialism in terrorism.
She remains trenchant in her views about the amount of publicity terrorists receive, first aired following the 9/11 attacks on New York: “I open the papers every day and I see pictures of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks on the front pages and I say I wish the papers wouldn’t do that – this is what these guys want, no one had ever heard of these people even a week ago, now they’re famous the world over.”
She warned: “That will serve as an incentive to other alienated young people to want to have their moment of glory.”
Professor Richardson steers quickly away from the subject, though, fearing that she will start lecturing, and talks about the state of Scottish education.
She is quick to defend the university and the “posh” tag so often appended to it.
“One of my concerns when I came was the fact that I felt we had a reputation we didn’t deserve, that wasn’t consistent with the facts and is certainly much less consistent with the facts now, of being a place where posh students come.
“A third of our Scottish students have an access flag – from a family with free school meals, low progression school, or deprived post code,” she said.
And she highlighted her own background, born in Ireland, she was: “one of seven kids”.
“My brothers did not finish secondary school, I am the most successful of my family so I fully appreciate the power of education to transform lives .
“It’s been enormously important to me that we are out there recruiting the smarteststudents with the best potential irrespective of their socio-economic background.”
But up against that desire to recruit the best regardless of background, is the Scottish education system, and Professor Richardson is concerned.
“There’s a lot of empirical evidence on this – at the high end Scottish kids are coming out capable of competing with the best in the world.
“At the low end they are doing very, very badly.
“We need to be investing in education very early in these deprived areas to ensure the kids emerge with the qualifications necessary to thrive in a selective university.”
Ensuring that students thrive is plainly a key priority for Professor Richardson, as the word recurs again and again in her conversation.
Funding, though is a constant concern. Only 22 per cent of St Andrews’ funding comes from government, the rest has to be raised by the university.
“We have to be very creative in generating other sources of revenue.
“We have raised £68 million which is not insignificant for a place our size as part of our campaign. We have all kinds of business interests, but things are very tight.”
The fundraising brought one of Professor Richardson’s highlights – a fundraiser at the New York Met last year, that raised £2.2 million on the night.
Another highlight was more local the academic celebration that brought luminaries including Hillary Clinton and Tim Berners-Lee to the town, the day ending with a procession through St Andrews to the East Sands for a firework display.
“The entire town was down on the east sands, we had music, we the spectacular display and it was just such a wonderful celebration of the university and the town, all coming together.”
As for the issue that generated most column inches, the failure of the R&A not to invite her to join – that’s dismissed.
“I’m delighted that the R&A has voted to admit women. I’m delighted that this change has come about and I look forward to the day when women’s membership will be completely normalised in the R&A. Life’s too short to take umbrage at things like that.”