Principal and Vice-Chancellor Peter Mathieson addresses UCU strikes in interview

Peter Mathieson, the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, gave an interview to students Honor Crean and Grace Volante about the current UCU strikes and other topics.

The interview was conducted as part of the ‘Espresso Series’ radio show, through Crean and Volante described its purpose as discussing with Mathieson “…his relations with both students and teachers, how he intends to stop strikes, and how he wishes to improve the university over the next few years.”

The UCU strikes are over two disputes: one about pensions, and one about pay and working conditions. When asked about his views regarding national negotiations and his plans for going forward with working conditions issues, Mathieson replied:

“On pay, I think the employer’s position’s quite clear. There’s been a pay offer which is considered reasonable and there’s not been any real discussion about changing the actual pay offer.”

He continued, “there are…other employment conditions, most of which are amenable to…discussions, and we’ve actually had very good discussions with our local UCU branch around things like guaranteed staff hours, and the Black and Minority Ethnic [BAME] pay gap and the gender pay gap, and we’ve made very good progress,

“… there was a joint statement published very recently between the university and local UCU about those employment conditions because those are things we can adjust locally.”

Discussion then turned to pensions.

“On the pensions dispute…we want to see a definitive solution…there’s a short-term problem and then a longer-term problem…the negotiations that are going on are largely focusing on the longer-term future of the scheme and obviously we want to see that resolved.

“I’m delighted that those negotiations are still going and apparently making progress.

“They’re not really addressing the shorter-term issue…the level of contributions required from both members of the scheme and the employers, to resolve the existing valuation… we would be prepared to try and do something to solve the short-term issue but only if it’s tied to a long-term solution.

“We don’t want another sticking plaster solution…we don’t think that’s in anybody’s interests. Any offer that we would make would be linked to a longer-term agreement about the scheme.”

“Pay and pensions need to be addressed for the sector as a whole,” he added later in the interview.

Mathieson was then asked if he felt he was working and communicating effectively – such as with individual conversations – with staff during the strikes in order to make changes.

“I haven’t had a huge number of one-to-one discussions with members of staff because it’s not a huge part of my opportunity really.

“I’ve done a lot of town hall meetings…for both students and staff, and in the context of that there’s been quite a lot of discussions. I think I’m well-informed about the mood of the staff.”

He also described his interactions with students and the student association.

“Regrettably, I don’t have time to meet all of them, but I’m doing my best to be accessible…”

“I meet regularly with the elected sabbatical officers…the president of EUSA is on a number of decision-making committees.

“I do school visits, where I try and get round every school of the university.”

The impact of the strikes on students, particularly third and fourth year students working on their dissertations, was then addressed; pastoral and academic support systems were considered.

“We’re very conscious of that problem,” Mathieson replied “…the students are caught in the crossfire of a dispute that is not of their making…we’re making efforts to mitigate as much as we can.”

He then detailed these efforts, including encouraging lecturers to be flexible with deadlines and regularly updating the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on the strikes.

Staff feelings towards the strikes were discussed in terms of different unions and memberships, and the particular goals of those on strike.

“My understanding of the conversations I’ve had is that the views are actually strongest about the employment conditions, about guaranteed hours staff, about the gender pay gap, about part-time working and the BAME pay gap, and those are things we’ve made real progress on.

“UCU is only one of the trade unions and there are a lot of staff that are not in trade unions…we do have to make sure that we try and engage with everybody.

“What I don’t want to see is splinter groups or groups that undermine the national negotiations,” Mathieson explained. “…it would be counterproductive for individual employers to break off from the national positions…”

Crean and Volante asked how the strikes are likely to affect student satisfaction and how the university will respond.

Acknowledging that the university has performed poorly in student satisfaction league tables for a long time, Mathieson stated: “We’re investing…in facilities and policies. We’re adding staff in various areas that we know are important, including counselling…”

He also discussed the financial implications of the strikes. “The university… we won’t profit. All the pay that’s forgone will be used… for supporting educational opportunities,

“…probably also contributing to hardship funds again,” he added, referring to funds from the 2018 strikes that were used in part for the student association’s hardship fund.

The interviewers then asked for his thoughts on the Appleton tower occupation.

“We respect the right to protest… I’m very aware that there’s a counter-view about the Appleton tower occupation because there’s a lot of students that feel very strongly that they need access to Appleton tower…

“I regret the fact that anyone is feeling that they need to occupy any part of the university.”

Finally, Mathieson responded to a question sent in relating to his signing of a recent statement about the Hong Kong protests – a statement which some interpreted as a condemnation of freedom of speech.

“Those words were misunderstood…we were not aiming to condemn freedom of expression in our universities.”

When asked how these ideas related to the current UCU strikes, Mathieson said:

“Universities should be places where different views and different opinions can be aired and discussed, but in a respectful way within the margins of the law.”

The Student would like to thank Honor and Grace for the use of their interview. Their show, the Espresso series, airs on at 8pm on Monday (Espresso Martini) and 9am on Thursday (Espresso Adulting).

Image: N. Chadwick via geograph