Focusing on his New Years message sent to all students on 9 January, The Student spoke to Principal Mathieson about his first year in office, accessibility in the university and his plans moving forward.
How have you found your first year as Principal?
I’m enjoying Edinburgh; I’m enjoying living in Edinburgh. Edinburgh’s been a very welcoming city for us.
I don’t describe this job as a bundle of laughs. So if people say to me are you enjoying your self, it’s hard to say ‘oh yeah I’m having the time of my life.’ But it’s a fabulous university; it’s full of very talented people.
The university’s in a great position; I think it’s in really good shape. But I can also see things that need improving. So far so good, is what I would say.
Are town hall meetings a productive forum for views and ideas to be expressed?
I’m doing the first one this week on the strategic refresh and then I’ve got a series more as well. It’s partly a hangover of my Hong Kong days; the phenomenon of a town hall meeting is something I did there, and I found it effective as a way of engaging. I think they are one way of getting myself out, making myself available, and allowing students and staff to set the agenda. It’s not my agenda; it’s their agenda. I feel that’s an important management tool to use and I enjoy interacting with people.
At your last town hall meeting someone asked about having a Men’s Liberation Officer – an idea that has always been widely condemned by liberation groups – and while you gave a very neutral answer, can these town hall meetings be seen as giving a platform to potentially harmful voices?
I suppose any forum where people are invited to come and talk about what they care about, you lay yourself open to people coming with various vested interests. As far as I’m concerned, as long as people are civil and respectful of other people’s opinions then I think it’s open house. I think a university has to be a place where different views are debated and respected.
That was a very interesting question and it was thought-provoking because it came in a context of us talking about other aspects of liberation, and so in raising an important topic, I thought it served a purpose. I have read, since then, some of the analyses of that particular viewpoint. My attitude is we tend to focus our resources on people that are disadvantaged. It’s a subject for debate whether white, straight males are disadvantaged or not.
Where would you fall in that debate?
Well, that’s the category in which I would put myself, and I don’t feel disadvantaged.
How will you, in future meetings, ensure that minority students feel safe and welcome in these town hall meetings?
I think the town hall meetings are a microcosm of the university, and I want people to feel safe on campus and as part of the university more generally. In the meetings themselves, it’s about respect for people’s opinions. I don’t want them to become shouting matches, that’s not very constructive.
But I think that everyone’s got the opportunity to put their questions and their views forward. If I think someone’s behaving inappropriately then I will say so. We just have to expect respectful behaviours and make sure that people have a chance to make their points.
You speak of values including a ‘people-focused approach’, ‘creating community’ and ‘cherishing students and staff’. How will this be achieved in practice?
I hope it’ll set a philosophy for the university. I can’t construct every sentence of every kind of communication, every letter, any interaction with the public or with students or staff. But I want to set a theme; I want to set a philosophy.
I’ve been given examples of where the university communications have been insensitive or unfriendly or cold, and I’d like to instil a moral philosophy where we stop doing that.
I can’t really police it but I want it to be a cascade effect through the organisation. I’ve tried to, at the senior leadership level, instil those kinds of thoughts. I’ve made a point about valuing professional services colleagues, in the same way, that we value academic colleagues and in the same way as we value – I don’t like this name – but ‘support staff’. And so, just with things like that, I try to lead by example.
You also speak of accessibility. With, for example, disabled students making up 11.2 per cent of the student body compared to 20 per cent of the population, with BME students making up 10 per cent of the student body compared to 13 per cent of the population, can Edinburgh at the moment be seen as an accessible institution?
Accessibility can obviously mean physical accessibility – where we’re thinking especially about disabled students or staff – or it can be to groups that would normally consider the university unattainable and I want to do something about both of those. I agree that on the figures we’re not a paragon of virtue in either; most universities are not to be fair, so it’s not as if we’re alone in that.
In terms of the point about the accessibility of the university in general to students from unconventional or disadvantaged backgrounds, I really care about for personal reasons because of my own history but also from professional reasons because I think that’s what the University of Edinburgh should be doing.
It’s a big topic, and we are making progress, and we’ve done well against one of the measures which is the SIMD20 [Scottish Index of Multiple Deprevation] measure of Scottish deprivation in relation to our Scottish students, we’re ahead of targets on that but I still think there’s a long way to go.
I want the university to be accessible to everybody, not based on what school you go to or which part of the country you come from, and we’ve got a whole program of work trying to address that and I am personally getting involved with some of that as I believe it’s really important.
The last time we spoke about student satisfaction at the university you said you wanted to listen to students to get to the root of why Edinburgh performs so poorly in student surveys. From what you have learned, what are the biggest barriers to student satisfaction at Edinburgh?
We’re going to appoint a Vice-Principal for Students, there’s not previously been one for some years. It’s not that we want to wait for that person to arrive and then he, she or they will solve all the problems, it’s more that we want to have that portfolio represented at the top table of the university.
I don’t think that I’ve heard everything that I need to hear yet but I do feel that I’ve started to hear the same things and have started to get a pattern. The biggest one, one actually that the Students’ Association has been very helpful with and Eleri, in particular, has been very helpful with, is the sense of community.
Eleri [Students’ Association President] has pioneered this We are Edinburgh project. The idea that there’s a community where We are Edinburgh, that’s powerful and the more we can do to create that the better. If you’re going to belong to something, you’ve got to feel that whatever that it values you.
Underneath that there’s a whole other list of things: transport, catering, accommodation, timetabling, room allocation. There’s a whole stack of things underneath that general heading that need attention. But a big unifying thing is a sense of community and a sense of being valued that we really need to work on.
There’s a whole working group dedicated to this. They haven’t reached their conclusions yet but they’re still working on it. Everything is being approached; everything from the details of how we timetable to the courses that we offer.