Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, Professor Peter Mathieson, attended a question time event run by the Edinburgh University Students’ Association. The event allowed students to submit questions beforehand that they wanted Mathieson to answer and also gave attending students the opportunity to ask questions on the night.
The event opened with a food and drinks reception in the early evening before the formal event started 45 minutes later. Around 80 students attended the free, ticketed event, and were joined by a mixture of representatives from the University of Edinburgh, the Students’ Association, and the University of Edinburgh Sports Union.
The event was introduced by Georgie Harris, Vice President Community at the Students’ Association, who opened by stating that this was “an event that encourages respectful conversations.” Heckling and shouting over others were prohibited.
Eleri Connick, President of the Students’ Association, then introduced the Vice-Chancellor. Mathieson started with a speech in which he revealed how he had been anticipating what kind of questions would come up during the event, organising these under two broad themes, one of these being money. He explained that research, vital to the world-recognised reputation of the university, is expensive and typically runs at a financial loss. He summed up the situation by saying that “if we want research… we have to keep the business running.”
Mathieson went on to say that standard tuition fees barely cover the total costs of the respective courses and that the higher rates for international students make up for the financial losses incurred by the other courses, to an extent.
While this means there is an economic motivation for attracting students from outside the European Union (EU) to the university, Mathieson said that this is not the main motivation. He described the promotion of diversity and opening up opportunities for all students as one of his priorities as Vice-Chancellor and Principal.
Mathieson identified a “mismatch” between what the university believes that it offers to students and what many students actually experience during their time here. While he reaffirmed his commitment to the improvement of the student experience at the university, he argued that he does not want this to negatively impact on the university’s reputation as a centre for world-leading research. He placed great emphasis on “balancing the books” to “maintain the university’s effectiveness.”
The Vice-Chancellor also said that he is seeking to solidify the university’s standing within the city of Edinburgh as well as its contribution to it economically and culturally. He also expressed aims to expand this influence across the United Kingdom and internationally.
Following Mathieson’s introductory speech, the first questions were taken from those submitted through the Students’ Association’s website. The first question put to the Vice-Chancellor regarded the measures being taken to combat the increasing strain on mental health services at the university. Mathieson explained that he wanted to see an “increase [in] the capacity of our support workers” through an increase in the number of university staff and the funding made available for such services.
The second online question asked the Vice-Chancellor about the university’s future plans for growth and expansion. Mathieson stated in very clear terms that “the university will not continue unvetted expansion,” especially where the use of non-EU students’ tuition fee payments are used to support this. While he emphasised that staff numbers and demand for certain areas of expertise meant some areas will have to be expanded, unchecked expansion is not a priority and the financial gain on the university’s part from having international students is not the only reason for their presence on campus.
Another question asked Mathieson what he believed the impact of the University and College Union strikes last February have had on the university. He responded by saying that he wanted to send a message to university staff, namely that “we want to prove to them that we genuinely value them.” He went on to say that “significant messages came from the strikes” and that work still had to be done to convince the staff that the university is working in their best interests.
Questions were then taken from the floor. One of the first questions related to the university’s commitment to strengthening the relationship with the local community in light of the controversy surrounding the proposed Leith Walk developments. Mathieson expressed a preference for accommodation owned and managed by the university as opposed to private companies, but admitted that the Leith Walk situation was handled “imperfectly.” Mathieson stated that “we currently do not have the housing stock to house all students” and that various strategies were being consulted to address the situation.
While Mathieson was adamant that students “enliven the community” rather than destroy it, he does “sympathise” with the concerns of Leith residents, and that he is “sensitive to residents’ concerns” given the university’s dominating presence in the city centre. Solutions being brainstormed include accommodation based further away from the city centre and better infrastructure put in place to make living there a viable option.
Mathieson was also asked for his opinions on why student satisfaction at the University of Edinburgh is so low. The 2018 National Student Survey by Times Higher Education ranked Edinburgh 136 out of 150 for student satisfaction. He clarified an earlier comment by saying that improving student satisfaction should not inherently impact on research reputation, but that swapping to a “student focused” approach often means diverting money from academic research funds. Mathieson believes that this should not be the case. He explained that plans for new student facilities are in place and that the university’s unchecked growth and the use of outdated buildings contribute to low student satisfaction scores.
The Vice-Chancellor was also asked about what was being done to combat the attainment gap between Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students and the rest of the student body, as well as racism on campus. Mathieson explained that “robust policies surrounding discrimination” are in place and that discrimination is not tolerated. He admitted however that the university is “nowhere near close” to sorting the attainment gap and that he wants BME students and all minority groups to “feel like the University of Edinburgh is for them.”
Another question addressed the Students’ Association’s Liberation Officers and why there is no Liberation officer for white men. The student argued that minority groups are not best served through the suppression of others and that this feeds into exclusion and disillusionment surrounding men’s mental health. The student asked for the Vice-Chancellor’s opinion on the establishment of a ‘men’s officer’ to help address these needs. This drew a mixed response, with another student later commenting that talking about white men’s liberation “is inappropriate.”
Mathieson acknowledged that the exclusion of men from conversations in mental health is “a danger” and “we have to be careful.” However, he explained that this concern applies across all student populations and that certain groups risk being ignored without suitable support being in place. Liberation Officers, he explained, are for those groups most at risk of discrimination on campus.
Another question centred on the UK’s upcoming exit from the EU and the impact that this will have on ERASMUS+ study and work programmes. Mathieson confirmed that, for the next cohort of students, their international experiences have been guaranteed. He went on to say that a smaller scale scheme that offers similar experiences to ERASMUS+ across the world is currently being developed and that new opportunities exist across the university for students of all backgrounds to have an international experience.
The Vice-Chancellor was then asked about what is being done to tackle instances of alleged transphobia and antisemitism on campus. Mathieson insisted that the university had been very clear on its position, saying that they consent to free speech but condemn discrimination and that these are not incompatible positions. Free speech, he said, “does not allow hate speech to be justified.”
However, another student raised the issue again, expressing dissatisfaction at how the Vice-Chancellor had drawn the line between free speech and hate speech. This was asked in response to the recent presence of stickers on campus with slogans such as “women don’t have penises,” which have been accused of fuelling transphobia. Repeating a quotation he said during his time at the University of Hong Kong, Mathieson said that “freedom of speech is not absolute” and no justification for any form of discrimination. He added however that the boundaries are “complicated” and “need to be negotiated.”
Another question came from a postgraduate tutor, asking the Vice-Chancellor about working conditions for PhD students and what was being done to improve them. The tutor claimed that some of his colleagues are not paid for their office hours and some are not given an office at all. Mathieson insisted that there are policies in place that address these issues, but that the problem is that these are applied inconsistently and incorrectly too often. He confirmed that university leadership are developing “reasonable approaches” to the issue.
At the end of the event, the Vice-Chancellor made it clear that he was happy to be contacted with further questions by email. If you want to email Peter Mathieson with one of your questions, you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: Andrew Perry