Edinburgh’s new Vice-Chancellor: a victim of the over-politicisation of university campuses?

While many aspects of life continue to spiral downwards – standards of living, real incomes, Boris Johnson’s understanding of basic politics – one trend is apparently ever increasing: the politicisation of university campuses. This has been shown in a scandal that stretches from Hong Kong to Edinburgh. It concerns the appointment of Peter Mathieson as the University of Edinburgh’s new Vice-Chancellor, who served just three of his five-year term in the same role at Hong Kong University (HKU).

Sparking the drama here in the British press was a questionnaire distributed to the staff of HKU, in which participants suggested that his chancellorship left much to be desired. 78 per cent strongly disagreed that he had “protected academic freedom”; one even thanked Edinburgh for taking him away from their institution.

The evidence against Mathieson is stark but this is not a simple situation and one that does not present simple answers. The widely circulated misconception that HKU dropped in quality under Mathieson is challenged by other reports. The Times’ Higher Education Guide showed that HKU stabilised under Mathieson after falling more than 20 places under the previous Vice-Chancellor. In fact, the overall quality of teaching rose steadily from the year Mathieson arrived. Whilst seeming contradictory to the above survey statements, these facts are perhaps explained by the number of respondents. Of the 2,060 people originally questioned, around 600 – or just 31 per cent – replied. This is hardly a reliable base of the overall opinion of the institution.

Mathieson was widely condemned for his signing of a 9-way joint statement between all of Hong Kong’s publicly funded universities. What caused controversy was the statement’s alleged linking of ‘abuses’ of freedom of speech to these institutions’ opposition to the Hong Kong independence movement. However, Mr Mathieson has said that those abuses were specifically related to incidences of certain students ‘celebrating the suicide’ of a pro-China official’s son – actions clearly disrespectful and inexcusable.

Mathieson’s deeds speak louder than the words against him. During his tenure, he intervened in a protest of 10,000 students, to warn and ask them to leave, fearing increased police impatience and brutality in responding to public gatherings in Hong Kong. This was widely met with support, hailing his bravery for entering the centre of a protest that was about to come under police crackdown, to face such a large crowd of angry students to tell them they should leave for their own safety.

How can a figure such as Mathieson, who has decried the appalling exploitation of a suicide and improved standards at a university, be denigrated by the staff of that same institution for not upholding academic freedom? Perhaps what is at play is the more concerning trend towards the ideologically charged politicisation of universities.

Would the academic staff have had such an issue if Mr Mathieson had criticised activists that opposed the views of that of the overall university staff? University staff are markedly left wing, with almost 70 per cent registered as Democrats in the USA, and similar numbers self-identifying as Labour supporters in the UK.

Rather than Mathieson’s suitability for the role, the real worrying issue here is the recent increase of support within the university for particular political beliefs, and the effect this is having on teaching.

For Mathieson’s impending arrival in Edinburgh, all that can be said is good luck. Whilst the stakes are not as high as a secessionist movement, it certainly will not be an easy ride here either.

A University spokesperson said: “The University has no comment to make on this, other than to reiterate what it said at the time of Professor Mathieson’s appointment: that he has a wealth of experience at a senior level in Higher Education and that we have every confidence that he is the person to lead the University of Edinburgh into an exciting new era.  We look forward to his arrival in post in early February.”

Image: Asim Imtiaz via Flikr

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