Interview: Newly appointed Principal, Dr Peter Mathieson

Peter Mathieson, current President of the University of Hong Kong, has been appointed as the new Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, to replace Sir Timothy O’Shea. Dr Mathieson gave some of his time to News Editor Ellen Blunsdon, to discuss some of his hopes and plans for the University under his administration.

To start, I would love to know what personally draws you to both the city of Edinburgh and our university?

The primary draw is the University: the international reputation, the history, the significance for Scotland and the world, the excellence of the students, staff, alumni and friends and such, all add up to a wonderful platform for further development.

The city has sentimental value for me, it was my father’s home town, and my wife Tina and myself are also excited about living and working in the UK’s second most visited city, the home of so much culture, art, economic and social significance.

Sadly, Edinburgh has notoriously low student satisfaction rates compared to other Scottish universities (80 per cent in 2015/2016) despite being ranked as fifth best in the UK.  Why do you think this is the case and how do you think these can be raised?

During the application process, I thought about this issue a lot. I talked to as many Edinburgh students as I could, read as much material as possible about the student experience in Edinburgh and the various initiatives to improve it, and generally tried to understand the ‘disconnect’ between the fact that Edinburgh is a fine university in a very liveable city, and yet the student satisfaction scores are so poor.

I concluded that I need further information: I want to hear from students directly about the issues that concern them. I will make this a priority when I take up the job. I can promise that I will try to understand the issues, work with students to address them and find solutions, prioritise resources to fill gaps where they are identified, ensure that teaching and learning are valued, modernised, assessed and improved where necessary.

Whilst nothing must be done that threatens Edinburgh’s status as a research powerhouse, I am acutely aware that a university’s most valuable output is its graduates, that teaching ‘pays the bills’ and that we have a moral and social obligation to ensure that we provide the best possible student experience to all students from all backgrounds.

So with the changing higher education system throughout the UK, are there particular policies that may cause issue at the university in the future and, if so, how do you plan on combating them?

Brexit poses a threat to universities, but I was always taught to turn every threat into an opportunity. Edinburgh can lead the way for Scotland and for the wider UK in articulating the value of internationalisation, in seeking out new ways of engaging with the global community, in cherishing diversity and countering anti-intellectual rhetoric.

The complexities of university funding in Scotland, where fellow students may be paying very different amounts for their university education, obviously introduces a dimension that is different from England, but the important thing for everyone to remember is that there is no such thing as free university education. If we want to provide high quality university education, it has to be paid for from somewhere.

We must collectively ensure that access to university education is independent of social status or family income, that universities give value for money for the public funding that supports them, that we never forget our commitment to improvement for individuals and for society more generally and that we remain true to our core values.

Universities are very resilient organisations: many, including Edinburgh, have thrived for hundreds of years, surviving wars, famines and social upheavals. This is because of their significance to society: we should never be blown off course by short term turbulence. 

So looking to the more global political climate (Brexit, Trump etc.), do you perceive any challenges in maintaining Edinburgh’s extensive global connections and diversely international feel?  If so what are these and how do you intend to ensure that potentially negative external political views do not negatively affect the university?

As I said, I see threats but I also see opportunities. I am undeterred from my belief in globalisation by recent events. My recent experience in Asia has convinced me that there are many merits in engaging with this part of the world.

The general public in Asia, whether educated or not, have a passionate belief in education as the route to self-improvement. The rapid growth of Asian economies, especially – but not limited to – China, suggest to me that universities like Edinburgh would do well to enhance their profile in this part of the world.

This is not just about recruiting overseas students, although this is important; I will encourage colleagues in Edinburgh to seek meaningful partnerships with universities, industries, governments and NGOs in Asia. We must also maintain and deepen our links with Europe and North America. Universities can and should rise above politics.

Finally, what are you looking forward to the most about starting in your new position?

In short, meeting the people and getting started on addressing the issues. I have been so impressed by the warmth and collegiality of the staff and students that I have met so far. I am eager to engage more fully: the University of Edinburgh is great but it can be even greater. Let’s make it happen!

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