Ethan DeWitt interviews Peter McColl:
What are some of your main accomplishments in the past three years?
The things I think that we have achieved on are accommodation in the university: the university has grown substantially in the last 10 years, and the accommodation hadn’t caught up with that, and now with new developments going on in Holyrood Road and Deaconess House, they’re beginning to get to grips with it, and I’ve been really keen to push them on that.
Also, landlord accreditation, which is really important for the majority of students who don’t live in university accommodation, and the student housing co-op, which is in some ways an achievement well beyond what I thought beyond what I thought I could manage.
Your platform calls for rent caps. How would the University work with the city to push for them?
The Scottish government’s out on consultation at the moment and I’ve been working with students and the Living Rent Campaign to make sure that we get our voice heard in that consultation. I don’t think we’re going to get a rent cap immediately but I do think it’s going to put pressure on landlords not to keep gouging students, which is what they’re doing at the moment.
You’ve made a sweeping stand on your platform for “free, fair and funded education.” How would you campaign for this?
The University’s position is that as long as fees exist in the rest of the UK [RUK], they have to charge fees for RUK students. And that is a position I disagree with, but it’s an understandable position. The obvious solution to all of this is to stop the UK government from charging fees. We know it can be done, and what we need to do is make sure that we have enough people making the case that this is what we should do.
The percentage of female professors at University of Edinburgh remains below 20 per cent, and the pay gap has grown more unequal in the last year. What would you do to reverse that?
The University takes this very seriously. There’s a big problem with Research Excellence Framework [REF], which creates a transfer market for senior academics. Universities poach academics from other institutions in order to increase their REF scores. One way around this would be to move away [from REF]. While I think it’s really good that the University has done well in the REF, I think that there are serious problems caused by the process and gender pay is one of them. So reforming REF would make it easier to deal with gender pay, because the University is put in an invidious position where it will perform poorly in the REF if it doesn’t poach.
Do you think there should be a structure to prevent vice-chancellor pay raises?
Yes. I think it’s really good that the Principal hasn’t taken his pay increment for about 5 years. But I don’t think it should be up to him. We need sector-wide pay restraint at the Principal level while we’ve got a squeeze on pay right the way through the rest of the institutions. The sorts of Principals who are taking very large pay increases are a big problem. And that needs to stop. One of the things I would advocate is having a student and staff representative on the Remuneration Committee for the Principal so that we’re beginning to curtail that. Also I would like to see a narrower pay ratio so that you’re raising the pay of the lowest through living wage and finer. I think we should go beyond living wage; I think we should be a beyond living wage employer. Because there’s really no reason why anyone needs to be paid more than £200,000 a year.
Student satisfaction is notoriously low at this university. How would you improve student satisfaction with teaching quality while balancing concerns of staff conditions?
We need more working together between students and staff: making students co-producers of knowledge. So rather than a teacher-pupil relationship, I think we need to move into a co-production model, so that students are brought in and allowed to work with academics in the production of knowledge. That’s a way of teaching.
Patrick Garratt interviews Steve Morrison:
What do you believe the main role of a rector is?
It is not common for someone to be elected and be the Chair of the University’s highest authority, therefore I believe the University rector should represent all students and all staff. The rector should not be an industry representative, but a person above the sectional interests that may exist in different parts of the university, and be present and approachable for any students and members of staff for them to make their concerns known, allowing the rector to make these concerns known at court.
When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh, I was the first student to stand for the position of rector. I thus find it quite poignant that, 47 years after leaving the University, I am coming back to make the positions of rector a real, important vehicle for all, not just some students, to use as a point of access to the highest body at the University. I would invite students to meet the rector at all occasions to put their views forward. Main role of the rector is to be an honest and true representative of all students and staff in making their time at the university, in every aspect, as rich as it could possibly be, and be open and accessible to all students who may not be in organised groups.
You have spoken recently about the importance of establishing a link between the higher education sector and the digital economy. Could you please expand on that?
I have been in Creative Industries for over 40 years and now have a strategy for how education should evolve. Over the years, I went on from Edinburgh to work in television in the BBC, and then Granada; I also started Granada film. I wanted to start my own company, and help small independent production companies. We started a group called All3Media, and started to visit people who set up incubators [helping start-up companies] for graduates who wanted to start their own businesses. I started going back to universities like Edinburgh, and asked whether there were courses that bridged the gap between technology and social sciences. I discovered there were joint courses, like design informatics, but they were quite rare. This is all quite old-fashioned. We have a system here that offers 4 years of education. Why don’t we take this further, and offer integrated, hybrid courses across all subject areas?
I have suggested in my manifesto – which is largely an educational reform programme – that every student should devise their own ‘personal pathway’ throughout their course and beyond, which will inevitably be refined as each year goes by. By the time students get to their third year, they should have access to a mentor, who may not be from their university, but could be from industries across the world. Through the Careers Service and alumni networks, a more bespoke arrangement could develop where students can decide what they want to do with the contacts they have developed.
It is an evolving outlook, shaped through my experience in industry, which has brought me back to universities and schools, in which we form a more modern vision of education that mixes more disciplines and skills. In Britain, we still have the C. P. Snow divide, where your teacher asks you to concentrate on one set of skills. This is ill-conceived for the modern world. It is historic, but it is not what we need. What we need is an education geared for the future. The role of education is to give major insights to the most important research and ideas of the day. However, there is a generational and cultural divide between those who are adept, and those who are excluded, which the educational sector should address.
What are hybrid courses, and how would these benefit students of higher education?
Hybrid courses can be advanced in two ways. Firstly, the Scottish system allows students to take courses outside their own discipline in their first two years. There is a need to address the practical problem of absorbing huge numbers of students to very popular subjects. Modern technology can help with this issue. Secondly, the University should provide students with the opportunity to continue with another discipline after the first two years. You should have the opportunity to fuse different disciplines right until the end of your course. This already happens in some cases, but it could go much further. For example, by fusing courses between disciplines within the humanities, the School of Informatics, the Business School, and ECA, you could almost construct the perfect four-year course. The door is halfway open.
You talk of wanting tuition fees to be reduced. Does this mean that you would not support some students’ calls for Free Education?
You can say anything; want it, wish it, but that does not mean it is going to happen. I would love for every student to have free education that I had, but with the economic realities of the moment, I think it is more realistic to lobby for lower English fees. I think it would be fairer if English students’ fees were reduced. I think Scottish students should continue to have free access if the Scottish economy can afford it.
Illustrations courtesy of Tess Glenn