• Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023

Exclusive: Peter Mathieson’s first face-to-face interview as University of Edinburgh Principal

ByEllen Blunsdon

Jan 31, 2018

The Student talks to the University of Edinburgh’s new Principal Peter Mathieson, former Vice-Chancellor and President of Hong Kong University, in his first face-to-face interview since taking post.  Mathieson laid out his ambitions and plans for his tenure while discussing his £342,000 a year salary, freedom of speech and the university’s poor student satisfaction.

Why did you decide to take up the position at Edinburgh?

I think a mixture of personal and professional reasons. The professional reasons are obvious: this is a fantastic university with a great history and a wonderful international reputation. Once I realised that Edinburgh was interested in me as a candidate, I then had to decide, ‘am I at the stage when I really want to go for it or not?’ and for me, the decision was whether or not to go to the interview. I promised them, ‘I won’t come to the interview unless I want the job, I’m not going to muck about here,’ and I spent a lot of time thinking about it.

A lot of the factors that made me decide to come to the interview were related to my personal situation. My wife is an orthodontist and she wasn’t able to work in Hong Kong, and although she wasn’t putting any pressure on me, I felt that I wanted her to be able to work, so coming back the UK made sense. We have a grandchild, he’s 9 months old, and being in the same time zone as him was attractive.

At the time I made the decision my mum was living in a remote part of Cornwall and not in great health so I thought being back in the same time zone as her made sense. Sadly, she died in October so she didn’t live long enough to see me come back but she knew I was coming back and she was pleased about that. So I think it was the three things.

Having decided that it did make sense to show an interest, my problem is that if I put myself into a contest, I then want to try and win. I knew that there was a contest, I knew there was going to be stiff competition with some very high-quality candidates and so I made an effort to get myself up to speed with the facts. I took two short visits to Edinburgh, spoke to as many people as I could – particularly students – and tried to find out what some of the issues were, and used that as my platform for trying to convince them to offer me the job. And I’m very pleased they did.

You’re doing a lecture to medical students on Friday, why did you choose this as your first public act as principal?

It’s absolutely not contrived, it wasn’t manufactured in any way. A friend of mine, a kidney doctor like me, organises the medical student teaching. He sent me an email saying, ‘it so happens that they’re due to be taught your subject,’ and, ‘would you like to do it?’ I’ve done a bit of teaching while I’ve been at Hong Kong University and I enjoy teaching and I enjoy talking about kidney disease and physiology so, for me to get to the opportunity, was just great. I really don’t want it to become a media circus, it’s a teaching session. I am teaching as someone with a bit of knowledge about kidney physiology, not as the incoming principal.

What do you think are the most important qualities for a university principal to have?

I think principles have been really important to me in the past four years. My wife calls me stubborn, I like to say that I’m consistent. I have some things that I believe in and that I think are important and I like to stick to them come what may.

I think it’s important to have vision. I think you need to have some idea of what it is you’re trying to achieve. I think it’s important to be a good listener. I don’t think leaders, in general, are always necessarily good listeners.

For an organisation like this one, with hundreds of years of history, with a lot of people who have worked here for a very long time, and have put a lot of effort into getting the university to where it is now, it would be crass if I didn’t listen to them and if I didn’t get their opinions. So especially in the first period of time, being willing to listen and take in information I think is really important.

For me, a lot of it’s about communication. There are quite a lot of medics, these days, becoming university leaders and several people have asked me why I think that is. I don’t think you can generalise but medics are trained in communication to an extent. One aspect of my medical background that might be helpful is that at least I’ve talked to people about bad news and I’ve talked to people about difficult subjects, and sometimes that helps.

Going back to what you said about principles, what are some that you hold as most important?

I’m a firm believer in academic freedom. Despite what’s been said and written about me in Hong Kong, I believe that I’ve always stood up for academic freedom. I believe academic freedom is subject to abuse if it is not defined properly. To me, what I mean by academic freedom is the freedom to think about, write about, talk about and discuss any subject no matter how controversial or unpopular it might be as long as it’s within the law and the boundaries of decency. I think sometimes people conflate academic freedom with other freedoms, but I think in a university – and it’s true in Hong Kong and it’s true in all the other universities I’ve worked in – that the ability to tackle the impossible, to think about it, to work on it, is a really important principle.

I think social responsibility is important. We are a publicly funded organisation; we have a responsibility to the government and to the public because we’re spending public money. I like to believe that university is for all and I know that’s always difficult to deliver. I came from a widening participation background myself and was the first member of my family to go to university. I think that everything good in my life has been as a result of education and I want that opportunity to go to other people as well. Working to make sure that we are not inaccessible to whole sections of society I think is really important.

The Minister for Universities Jo Johnson has threatened universities with fines if they no platform controversial speakers. How do you feel about this and would you be in support of no platforming at Edinburgh?

I think in general, universities are places where controversial opinions should be heard and should be challenged. To me, rather than stopping someone from sharing a controversial view, I think it’s better to challenge it. I think universities can play a very important role in that. There are boundaries. I don’t think that we should allow hate speech; I don’t think we should allow incitement of violence. But I think that controversial or unpopular views should be heard and should have a place in university.

There’s a report written by the University of Chicago called the Stone Report where they address a number of issues around freedom of speech. It basically says that you don’t go to university in order to be comfortable, you go to university in order to be challenged. Therefore, there is a place for opposing views to be heard and to be treated with respect within certain boundaries. I’m inclined to agree with Jo Johnson about the idea that controversial views should be heard.

It’s no secret that Edinburgh ranks poorly for student satisfaction, we are 127th out of 129 in the Complete University Guide and bottom in the National Students Survey. What steps are you going to take in your role to change this?

Firstly, when I started reading about the university I was very surprised by that. When I started to think about the university and how I approach an application for a job here, that’s the single most obvious thing that comes out, it’s everywhere. I find that a bit surprising because my experience anecdotally from talking to about Edinburgh was that, generally, people have been very positive about it. Students will say that they are having a good time, parents of former students all tell you what a great time their kids had and for me, it strikes some similarities with my experience in Bristol. When I was Dean of Medicine and Dentistry in Bristol we had the similar issue. Generally, the students were having a good time but they credited the city, not the university, for that. I think possibly that’s what’s going on in Edinburgh.

People love Edinburgh. It’s a great place to live, it’s a great place to study yet the university doesn’t get the credit. I had a group of Edinburgh students come and visit me in Hong Kong. One young woman said to me that she felt that she enjoyed the experience despite the university rather than because of the university. That kind of attitude is troubling so the first thing I want to do is try and understand it more. A huge amount of work has gone on. Everybody in the university hierarchy knows that this is an issue, I don’t think there’s any blindness too it and I think a lot of efforts have been made to try and do something about it.

There’s some evidence that there’s progress being made but my first priority is to listen to the students. It’s not rocket science. If you’ve got a group of people that you want to understand why they feel a certain way, why not talk to them? I’ve organised some town hall meetings and some opportunities for me to just hear the student voice. I won’t necessarily be able to solve all the issues that come up but at least I can get a feel for what people think the issues are.

The other thing is to understand what’s already been done because a lot of effort and quite a lot of money, estates planning and digital communication expertise is being brought to the topic. I want to know where that’s got to, what’s working and what’s not working. The only way I can really do that is by being on the inside and listening to people.

Your predecessor, in terms of financial commitment, was heavily focused on the expansion of the university. In the debate of expansion versus quality, which side would you fall on?

I think there is always that debate. The university has expanded, that’s a fact. My principle would be to say, ‘let’s get our house in order as best we can with our current size before we think about expanding,’ because I think there’s work to be done. I wouldn’t want to carry on expanding without paying attention to the experience we’re providing at the moment.

Students undoubtedly want to hear about the controversy surrounding your time in Hong Kong. How do you feel about that survey that said 78 per cent of academic staff and senior administrators strongly disagreed that you effectively protected academic freedoms?

I think the first thing to say about the survey and about the media coverage in Hong Kong in general is I think it’s clear that there were quite a lot of people that disagreed with things that I had said or done, and probably some people that were pleased to see me leave. I accept that, I don’t necessarily agree with them but I think it’s a fact.

The survey that you’re referring to was flawed in its methodology. There was nothing to stop anyone from completing the survey more than once, there was nothing to say that everyone completing it had to be a bonafide member of staff, and the organiser is a former member of staff so there are a number of methodological questions which I don’t think have been answered. The fact is that some of the things I said and did were unpopular. Hong Kong is a very divided place and so there are political camps loosely described as pro-establishment and anti-establishment. The trouble is that almost anything you say or do will likely offend someone and at various times I offended both camps.

One of the things my communications director told me was that the Hong Kong media found me confusing because they couldn’t classify me as being either pro-establishment or anti-establishment. I take that as a compliment because I was not trying to be pro-establishment or anti-establishment, I was trying to do what I thought was best for the university. So I don’t think the survey actually reflects general opinion – I could show you thousands of messages of support I received from members of staff and students – but there’s undoubtedly a group that was dissatisfied with me.

The thing I think, which caused the biggest controversy, was the statement that the university heads, including me, made about so-called abuses of freedoms of speech. It was misinterpreted by many, possibly in some cases maliciously as if I, or others, were condemning discussing Hong Kong independence. That was not what the statement said and it was certainly not what I intended to say by it.

I was aiming to condemn what I saw as hate speech. There were two particular examples, one was a message celebrating the suicide of a son of a government official and another one was a message on my campus saying let’s celebrate the anniversary of 9/11. I thought both of those things were unacceptable and I thought pretending that they could be justified under the banner of free speech was unforgivable. And that’s what I was aiming to condemn.

Unfortunately, the linkage of the statements, which ended up being more ambiguous than I would’ve wished, allowed some people to say that we were condemning discussion of Hong Kong independence which was not in my mind.

How are you going to go about proving to the students of Edinburgh that this public perception isn’t necessarily correct?

I hope they’ll judge me as they find me. I want to be accessible to both students and staff. I want to be someone that they can get to know. I want them to be able to tell me what they think, if they have particular opinions about something that either goes well or doesn’t. It’s helpful for me to know about it. Judge me on my behaviours and my actions rather than the Hong Kong media.

It was recently revealed that the university has a larger surplus budget than all of the other universities in Scotland combined. What is the university going to do with this money, and how are you going to ensure that this is invested wisely?

There are some interesting accounting details which I am not completely familiar with that account for some aspects of the size of the surplus, but the fact is that the university is in a very healthy financial position and making a big surplus. That’s undeniable. I think that’s in the interests of the students and in the interests of the staff. I’ve only been peripherally involved so far but we’re planning to reinvest that in making the university a better place.

A lot of that is about estates. We’ve got an estate which is hundreds of years old and quite a dispersed geography. I’m aware that sometimes transport links between different sites are not ideal. There’s a lot that can be done with digital technology; Edinburgh has fantastic strengths in computer science and informatics. We can bring some of that expertise to improve the state of the university and having a cash surplus to help us do that is obviously a big advantage.

But why is the money being reinvested in estates over, for example, providing affordable accommodation for first-years, ensuring that tutors are given the appropriate training when dealing with issues of mental health or expanding the counselling service?

I think all of those are a priority so I wouldn’t say that estates are the only source of investment, it’s just that estates are often the most expensive. I think for all of those things, if there’s room for improvement and we can invest then we should be doing so. I don’t fully understand the accommodation provision and this is something I’ve talked to people about. I want to understand it because it’s been my experience in previous jobs that one major determiner of student satisfaction is accommodation and transport. Another big thing is timetabling and lectures showing up on time and getting feedback on your marks, there’s a whole load of categories of things that I know influence student experience. Accommodation and transport is a big one of them, and in expanding the number of students the demand is growing.

I’ve heard from people at the university that at times we haven’t been able to provide accommodation for everyone at the university that we’ve promised it to, and that’s taxing. So I think that is a priority and we will pay attention to that. If it requires investment then that’s got to be prioritised among all the other demands.

There have been calls for a working-class liberation officer, so students are clearly passionate about making the university more accessible to students from a lower socioeconomic background. You already touched on the fact that this is a priority for you, but how are you going to directly address these concerns?

I don’t know about that particular request and I’d be interested to learn more about that. I think it’s great that the students feel like that because that’s an important determinant of what the university policies should be, because if we were trying to persuade people that this was a good idea that would make it a good deal harder.

I think a lot of it could be done through direct engagement with schools. I don’t think it should start at the time of application or admission, I think that’s too late. I think it’s got to start certainly in secondary school but maybe even in primary schools. I think it also involves work with parents. The first thing that we’ve got to do is make it clear that the University of Edinburgh values people from those backgrounds and wants to make life easier for them. It’s important not to be patronising so we’ve got to maintain high standards and understand that people have self-respect and pride, but we’ve got to make it accessible.

In Bristol, I would go to the local school and talk to the kids about how I went to a school a bit like theirs and that I didn’t come from a family where anyone had been to university before and now I’m Dean of the medical school. Sometimes you can lead by example but there are some financial aspects. I think Edinburgh’s already quite good at providing scholarships and as I understand it the SIMD20 have improved although we’re not quite at the target that we’re aiming for. We’re getting there but it’s not an easy problem to solve. If it was easy to solve, everyone would’ve solved it by now.

It was released earlier today that your salary will be £342,000, which is 12 times the UK national average. Do you think this is reasonable?

The salary that I have been offered was calculated by the remunerations committee and I had no negotiations with the university about salary. They made me an offer and I accepted it. It’s in the public domain that this represents a pay cut for me as Hong Kong is a high salary, low tax environment.

But I recognise that it’s a very high salary and I recognise that people are going to raise questions about it. How can it be justified, why do I need to be paid that amount of money? But there is an international market for Vice-Chancellors and the university clearly calculated what they were prepared to pay. I will make every effort to justify it in people’s minds.

The argument I would make about it is that, yes it’s a high salary and yes it’s way above average, but I come from a very average background and the reason I’ve got to that position is an example of the transformative power of education. Everything good that has happened has been through education. I got into medical school, I enjoyed my career in medical practice, teaching and research and ultimately I went on into leadership positions and I’ve now arrived in this highly paid position in Edinburgh. None of that would’ve happened without education and if I can help others to have similar opportunities then they can reap the benefits as well.

On principle couldn’t you have said no to the salary?

I could’ve done I guess, but I was already taking a substantial pay cut. So I was already accepting that money wasn’t the only determiner and there were many other reasons for coming to the University of Edinburgh that were nothing to do with salary. I’ve read about the controversy about Vice-Chancellor’s pay. I think it’s right that it’s challenged, we’re public sector officials and we’re being paid high salaries so it’s right that people ask the questions. As I say, there are justifications which the remuneration committee took into account. If you look as a percentage of turnover, I’m actually the lowest paid Vice-Chancellor in Scotland because this is a big organisation. It’s a lot of money, it’s a big salary and I’ll work hard to justify it.

There are 21 members of Edinburgh university staff are earning over £200,000 a year while a survey conducted by The Student found that one in seven of your postgraduate tutors earn less than £500 a month. Why is there such a disparity between the highest earners and the lowest earners?

It’s a feature of all universities that there are lowly paid staff and I think we need to value all staff for their contributions. The disparity that you mention is a stark one. I don’t know where those numbers of staff that are highly paid are, but I guess some of them are probably in the senior management and in the medical school because that’s typical of most universities. There are salary scales which are nationally and internationally accepted for those roles. I guess what we need to look at are the lesser paid staff, and are they being adequately rewarded for their contribution to the university? There may well be examples where they are not.

It came out yesterday that some university staff are going to be striking next month. Do you support your staff’s decision to do so?

I understand that the main issue is around pensions and that this is a national discussion between the unions and the universities. I will become part of those discussions, undoubtedly. I think in general the right to strike and the right to protest is one which is enshrined in law and we should respect that.

But we have a job to do in trying to make sure that the university continues to run effectively for those that are not on strike and those who are still expecting teaching and research. It would be better if industrial action could be avoided, but I understand the strength of feeling around it and I’ll do my best to be a constructive part of the negotiations.

How do you think that the strikes will impact students and how will you ensure this is lessened?

As I understand, it’s an escalating series of strikes going from a smaller number of days to a larger number of days, so the impact will escalate in the same way. The university has quite detailed contingency plans to minimise the disruption as much as possible.

I think the key thing is to try and resolve the underlying issue. Generally, people don’t enjoy going on strike, they are doing so because they feel very strongly about an issue, so we need to look at what we can to solve it. In this case, we’ve got to do that as part of a national negotiating structure. We can’t individually – as a university – solve the problem without discussion with colleagues.

I opened with a question about why you decided to come to Edinburgh.  Given that you left Hong Kong three years into a five year term, how long are you planning on staying here?

It was more than three years incidentally, nearly four years. It was a five year term and I left after three years and ten months. It’s exactly the same as when I arrived in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, I never had the intention of not seeing through my term but I didn’t know what the longer term would hold.

I guess I feel the same about this place. They’ve offered me a five year contract and I will do my best to make a success of it. If it goes well then hopefully towards the end of that five year contract they might offer me another one.

I have every intention of this being my last job; I am of an age where it ought to be my last job. There’s a sentimental attraction to Edinburgh for me because it’s where my heritage comes from and it’s quite a neat completion of the circle to finish up in Edinburgh. If they like me then I’ll be very happy to stay here for the rest of my career.

Image credit: The University of Edinburgh Press Office

By Ellen Blunsdon

Former President, Treasurer, Head Copy Editor, Editor-in-Chief and News Editor. Retired History and Politics student.

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