Edinburgh’s leading women
1970s alumna Professor Ann Smyth and 2018 graduate Eleri Connick share notes on their leadership roles with the General Council and Edinburgh University Students’ Association.
Ann Smyth graduated in psychology from Edinburgh in 1970 before adding an MPhil and a PhD from the University to her CV. Eleri Connick gained her degree in philosophy almost half a century later. But the pair don’t just share an alma mater. They’re also both entrusted with leading an important body of the University.
Eleri is President of the Edinburgh University Students’ Association, elected to ensure students’ views are represented. Once students graduate, their continuing voice can be heard through the General Council, of which Ann is the Secretary.
We caught up with Eleri and Ann to learn about the factors shaping their roles today and how they can work together to effect change in the University.
Why did you put yourselves forward for your respective positions?
Ann Smyth: I was invited to apply! If I am asked to do something for the University my default setting is to say yes. I had served for eight years as a General Council Assessor on Court and more recently on the steering group tasked with reviewing the Scottish Code of Higher Education Governance, so I felt I had a broad understanding of the University and its governance and some insight into how the General Council could be helpful at a time of change in the sector.
Eleri Connick: I had the most amazing year as Vice President of the Sports Union and absolutely loved being able to have an active role in making our sports union members have a better time within the union by creating our 'boost your mood' campaign, securing funding for a sustainability water bottle initiative, and of course organising our biggest date in the diary – The Sports Union Ball. I wanted to take this passion and use it on a bigger scale. I absolutely love the University of Edinburgh because it has given me so many incredible opportunities and I wanted to push a manifesto that ensured all students get to make the most of their time here.
What is the single biggest issue facing the University of Edinburgh that you feel you can impact in your role?
Ann Smyth: I think communication is the key issue. To be effective in its governance, advisory and ambassadorial roles, the General Council needs to be well informed about key issues affecting the wellbeing and prosperity of the University. The Secretary has a pivotal role as a channel of communication between the University and the General Council. Communication is critical to attracting the active engagement of its members in the work of the General Council and support of the University.
Are there any similarities between the two bodies?
Eleri Connick: Yes 100%! Both bodies take representation seriously and it’s so exciting that we both get to sit on University Court and ensure that what our members are saying is being heard at the highest University committee. It will be exciting to see how many of the student reps of 2018-19 move on to sit on the General Council in the next few years.
Ann Smyth: I think the constituencies for both the Students’ Association and the General Council have grown enormously. In a world with demands competing ever faster for people’s attention and time, we both face a challenge in communicating effectively with our members and encouraging them to engage actively in our organisations and their activities, including elections.
Do you have any advice for each other?
Ann Smyth: I gained an enormous respect for our Students’ Association officers from observing the performance of successive cohorts of them on Court. Having already begun the dialogue with Eleri, I know she is a highly competent young woman so I hesitate to offer her any advice. However, generally speaking, I would always encourage the Students’ Association President to work hard at establishing good communication with the University’s senior management team. It doesn’t mean you will always agree, but if you want them to understand your point of view you need also to be able to understand theirs and to develop a basis for working collaboratively to resolve issues.
As in any elected position, officers will want to achieve their objectives in their time in office. Some of the most worthwhile cultural shifts take longer to achieve. Having the vision and generosity of spirit to see the value of the long game is important too.
Eleri Connick: I have absolutely no advice for Ann but I definitely think I can learn a lot from her incredible passion for the University. You take on this role knowing that you’ve only got 12 months to achieve your objectives, but very quickly your diary becomes packed with so many other commitments that you don’t realise the President is a part of. Therefore, knowing that you can work with the General Council to help with the longer projects is amazing, as you really don’t want projects to stop when you finish office.
What are the benefits of being involved more deeply with the University, as you both are?
Ann Smyth: Being involved with the University is a tremendous privilege. I enormously value the insight into the tremendous range of innovative work in which the University is involved, whether in its thinking about delivering world-class higher education to equip people for the 21st century, its cutting edge research or its commercialisation activities.
As a passionate internationalist I particularly value the opportunities to interact with people from around the globe. Of course there is a particular joy in the opportunities for engagement with students. They give a tremendous sense of pride by association, and hope for the future of our troubled world.
Eleri Connick: To be President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association is an absolute honour. I know I’m extremely lucky to be representing all of the incredible students at this institution and it is the students’ incredible stories that keep me energised. This role really does give you the power to make seriously big changes for students and that’s incredibly rewarding.
Finally, what does the University of Edinburgh mean to you?
Ann Smyth: Education changes lives. I shall always be grateful to Edinburgh University for shaping mine. My father, the son of a miner, studied law here before the war. He kept his childhood friends who had not had the same educational opportunities and emphasised to my brother and me the value of higher education.
Edinburgh had an exciting flexible approach which allowed me to sample a number of new subjects, with diverse fellow students, before settling for my honours subject. The 1960s were a fun time to be a student here, although also a time of student protests internationally. Edinburgh was a training ground for future Foreign Secretaries and the debates between Robin Cook and Malcolm Rifkind in the Union were a feisty prelude to the regular Union dance nights.
It was here I had student travel opportunities, met my first husband, and was lucky to be offered a PhD place, and later, my postgraduate professional training. Latterly in my professional life, when I was commissioning professional education on behalf of NHS Scotland, it was the University of Edinburgh that led the field to modernise to meet service needs. So Edinburgh means to me a place that innovates, takes on challenges and offers opportunities.
Eleri Connick: The University of Edinburgh holds a huge part in my heart because it has not only provided me with endless opportunities, but most importantly with the most incredible and inspiring friendships. I truly believe that what makes Edinburgh different from other universities, are the extra-curricular opportunities available and the ability for students to truly make change within the University, the community and the world – from ending period poverty to designing the world’s first Hyperloop and so much more. Therefore, it is important that there are no obstacles preventing all Edinburgh students from making the most of these opportunities. It is an honour to be representing the wonderful students of Edinburgh, because we are a community who is hopeful, is tackling stigma, and breaking world records; we are more than just students - We Are Edinburgh!