Peter Mathieson and other senior leadership acknowledged the University of Edinburgh’s historically low student satisfaction at the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Open Q&A on 14 November.
The event, titled Student Voice Forum: University Senior Leadership Q&A, was attended by Principal Peter Mathieson, Deputy Secretary Lucy Evans and Vice Principal of Corporate Services Catherine Martin.
Vice Principal of Students Colm Harmon was not in attendance due to health reasons.
The event was chaired by EUSA President Sharan Atwal.
The senior leadership responded to student questions concerning the University’s response to student dissatisfaction, the housing crisis, student mental health, casualisation and controversial university investments.
Principal Mathieson opened by recognising the consistently low student satisfaction at Russell Group universities and particularly the University of Edinburgh.
He stated: “We’ve tried to improve but we haven’t seen an outcome in terms of improved satisfaction. Either we’re addressing the wrong things or we’re not addressing them sufficiently and comprehensively enough.”
Mathieson went on to argue that the university had “patchy student experience” pre-Covid, however the university was hindered in fixing these long term issues due to the pandemic and further industrial action, stating:
“You could argue that we haven’t had a chance to start addressing all the pre-existing problems because we have done so much fire-fighting around the day to day issues [industrial action and the pandemic].”
Students also raised questions over mental health issues, citing suicide prevention and long university counselling wait times as main issues.
While acknowledging that “we have a long way to go,” Deputy secretary Lucy Evans defended the University’s mental health services, reporting that the counselling service reduced waiting times from six to three weeks in the last year.
She added that: “[The counselling service] is something that we are very privileged to offer at the university and it is because we recognise how supportive we need to be for our students.”
This line of questioning comes in light of investigations into the University’s competence in supporting students struggling with mental health.
Students also voiced their concerns about the ongoing housing crisis in Edinburgh, specifically inquiring about the university’s approach to solving this issue.
A representative for SLURP: Students for Action on Homelessness noted that one in six students were without accommodation before the semester started.
The rep added that the emergency housing options the university did offer: “were so poorly advertised that they were basically invisible to students and in our survey, we consistently found that homeless students didn’t know [about] them.”
The VP of Corporate Services stated that 110 beds were vacant in University emergency accommodation, acknowledging that the University did not sufficiently advertise these alternative housing options.
Martin also argued that there were “600 vacant beds” throughout the city, though her source for this number was unclear.
When senior leadership were questioned on the high rate of casualisation and staff inequality, Mathieson stated that the University wants to “change the perception that Edinburgh is an irresponsible or not a generous employer.”
Students also confronted the University about investment in chemical company Albemarle, which they claimed supplies the United States and other militaries with white phosphorus, an explosive weapons component.
The University’s Responsible Investment Policy advises against investing in “controversial armaments.”
EUSA Trans and Nonbinary Officer, Robyn Woof asked why, if white phosphorus is explicitly listed as a controversial weapon in the university’s Social Responsibility and Sustainable Investment Policy, the university holds shares in Albemarle, the white phosphorus manufacturer.
Mathieson and Martin both stated that the investment committee will discuss the controversial investment at their upcoming meeting, and that senior staff do not make decisions on investments.
Responding to overall criticism on the university’s reluctance to make radical changes to exert its influence on social issues, Mathieson stated:
“Inevitably, our view of the right thing to do will not always be everybody else’s view of the right thing to do.”
Image via Lara van Vorst.