Edward Snowden, in his role as rector of University – a post he was elected to last year – has delivered a videolink address to students during Freshers week. His speech, the full transcript of which follows below, reflects on the progress that has been made since his revelations began, the ability of individuals to make a profound difference in a changing world and expresses concerns about higher education laws proposed by the Scottish government.
Welcome to the best university in the world. I was elected to send a message and that was that people deserve to have a voice in government and that justice has to be seen to be done.
Now you’re arriving at this university at an extraordinary time of change. The world is more complex and evolving at a faster rate than it ever has for any class before. And you, and the capabilities and knowledge that you develop here with a little bit of skill and hopefully more than a little bit of luck, will allow you to change the world.
There are cynical people in government, in private society, in the press who argue that everything we do as civil society, a community, as an academic sector, as a common human family doesn’t amount to much. We change things, but there’s not so big. Reforms are made, but they aren’t really determinative.
I would argue that that is completely false. When we look at what’s happened in the last two years alone within the United Kingdom, we see that there is a system of mass surveillance put upon the public without their knowledge, without their consent and overseen only by a secret court called the Investigatory Powers Tribunal that in 15 years never ruled against the government a single time.
Thanks to people like you that’s changed, that secret rubber stamp court has now ruled against the government on multiple occasions. You are increasingly having a say over the way your government operates and the boundaries, the limits of your rights.
Now, for the first time in many years, they are once more beginning to expand. And if we can do that in our country, in our countries around the world, we can do that around the world.
We can enforce human rights through new means, through the things we discover, through the ideas we generate, through the technologies we create, to reach out and provide people with new liberties beyond borders to which they have never been entitled before.
We can create a freer and better world.
The danger of this is that even as we make progress there are measures step by step in all different parts of society that push back. For different reasons they feel threatened by the progress of civil liberties. They like the status quo, they like the level of power to which they are entitled. And that happens even within the academic sector I’m quite sad to report.
As Rector I’ve been contacted by members of the Student Representative Council, I’ve seen stories in the newspaper that indicate that within Scotland, within the parliament, there is a new bill called the Higher Education Governance Act which represents a real threat to the financial and academic independence of the university system, of the oldest universities in Scotland and every other one.
More than anything else, more significant chance for the ancient universities, is that it will dilute the student and university voice in determining your own government, how you want to be ruled, how you want to be represented on the most senior bodies.
This means ancient universities could lose their position of Rector entirely. Beyond that it means things like the buildings that you work in, the funding you can generate through grants and charitable statuses could be lost entirely.
While this may seem a little political for people who have just arrived in the university, what you need to think about is this is a decision – if you don’t participate in it – you will lose influence you once had, you will lose rights you once had, you will lose representation you once had that you will never be able to receive again.
This is what we see around the world as far as rights work. The only rights that you enjoy are the ones you stand up for.
So I’ll cut it short here and say you will be, I think, the most capable class to come out of this university than there has ever come before. And working together you can achieve things, do things that no other cohort has ever been able to do before. That’s not just an extraordinary opportunity. It’s an extraordinary responsibility.
It is my honour to serve as your Rector. And I have to say as well this is Freshers Week. Don’t forget to have some fun.