In this series, Professor Mona Siddiqui, Assistant Principal Religion and Society, chats to members of our community to find out more about them. Each fortnight she’ll be asking, what is the one regret that has shaped their past, and what is their one hope for the future.
Mona Siddiqui: My guest this week is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh Peter Mathieson. Peter – thank you so much for joining me.
Peter Mathieson: My pleasure Mona. Good to talk to you.
MS: First of all, Peter, it’s coming up to about three years since you became Principal of the University. How have you found the experience, aside from the Covid issues?
PM: I’ve completed three years now and I am into my fourth year and that in itself seems amazing to me. I’ve found it a very enriching and enchanting experience so far. I think Edinburgh is a fabulous city. As you probably know, it’s the birthplace of my father so for me there is a sentimentality to being in Edinburgh. The University is a wonderful organisation full of talented people and with a very significant place in the city, in Scotland and in the wider world so I feel privileged to have been appointed as the Principal. There has been a sense that it has been very difficult to measure progress, not least because of the pandemic but also there are a number of things that I think need attention at the University of Edinburgh. Clearly, the one that I made a lot of play on in terms of what I thought I could contribute to the role was around student satisfaction and indeed staff satisfaction. Although we’ve started lots of work to address both of those things there has been a sense that for the last year now all of those objectives have had to be seen in the light of the pandemic so it has been an enormous distraction from the original plans. On the other hand, there is a job to be done in terms of navigating the University through the pandemic and my senior team and I have done our best to deliver that.
MS: You trained as a nephrologist. For the sake of our audience can you explain briefly what a nephrologist does?
PM: It’s a subspecialty of medicine. The organ system that I chose to specialise in was the kidneys. Nephrology means the study of the kidneys and patients with kidney disease can be treated with dialysis or with transplants or sometimes can be treated with drugs to try and avoid the need for dialysis or transplants. My professional career, in terms of the clinical work, was devoted to looking after people with kidney disease either on dialysis or with transplants or in my case, very often, prior to reaching that stage trying to treat the disease so that they never need dialysis. My research programme, which I conducted alongside my clinical work for 19 years, was focused on understanding normal kidney physiology and how it goes wrong in disease and how drugs work to try and correct that. There was a close alignment between my research area and my clinical work.
MS: Do you still get to do any clinical work?
PM: No, I don’t and I miss it. I had to reduce my clinical work when I took on a senior role in Bristol but I did still manage to do some clinical work on a regular basis there. When I went to Hong Kong I was not able to do clinical work, largely for reasons of professional registration. I’ve not done any active clinical work for the last seven years now. I could in theory still do it in Edinburgh because I could reawaken my registration to practice but I haven’t done so because I don’t like the idea of not doing something properly. I just wouldn’t have time to give it the attention that it would need so the only exposure I have to renal medicine, to kidney medicine, now is through some contact with my research group and doing some teaching here in Edinburgh. I teach the medical students on the subjects which have interested me in research terms over the last 20 years and I did that most recently just last week and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
MS: You’ve worked in various institutions of higher education in your career. In your view, do British universities still offer value for money in our highly competitive global market?
PM: I think the respect that British universities are held in by the rest of the world is evident from a number of pieces of data, not least the demand for places from international students who wish to come here and the desirability of British universities, including places like Edinburgh, as partners in research or educational agreements with international universities. I think there is lots of evidence that we still offer a great deal of attraction. Value for money is a bit subjective. If you look at the Scottish situation, you’ve got students that may be doing the same course that have very different tuition fee levels applied depending on where they come from or where they studied their school work. What’s incumbent upon places like Edinburgh is to provide the best quality education and student experience that we can, irrespective of which fee category people are in. Therefore, the value for money question might be quite different whether you are an international student or a home student but the product should be the same, the quality of the experiences people can expect should be the same.
MS: If there’s one message you could give to both staff and students at the University in these challenging times, what would that be?
PM: My message would be thank you for the extraordinary efforts that you have all made in these very difficult circumstances. The senior team, including me, are all doing their best to listen and to respond. We’ve got a complicated set of requirements from governments and from public health authorities to be guided by. We also want to listen to students and staff and alumni and friends of the University. We recognise these are really challenging times for everybody and we are doing our best to make sure that we continue to provide the best possible experience for everyone associated with the University. It has not been easy for anybody but I do have the strong sense that people generally want the same thing – we want to be able to live up to our mission and our vision and to deliver the best possible experience that we can. Everyone is just working hard to try and achieve that, so my overwhelming message is thank you and one of appreciation that the circumstances that everyone has been working under in the last year or so have been extraordinary and very varied for different people. Everyone has their own challenges to face.
MS: Is there anything in your recent or distant past, either in your personal or professional career that you have regretted?
PM: Regret for me right now is the sense that I know the University of Edinburgh can be such a fantastic, transformational place for people, particularly for students but also for staff and for society, and we have been inhibited from providing what we would wish to provide by this extraordinary set of external events. Although we have done our best and I think there are a lot of things that we have got right, there are some things that we have got wrong and clearly the fact that we have been driven by external events beyond our control has made life very difficult. I regret the fact that the current cohort of students and many of our staff have had a really difficult period of time in their lives and I hope that in the longer term we can make that up to them and as situations improve we can get away from the restrictions that currently affect our ability to deliver.
MS: Maybe you’ve already answered it but moving forward and thinking of the future, what’s the one hope that you carry forward?
PM: My hope I would make a personal one but it also applies I think to everybody on the planet. My hope would be that I can see more of my family than I have been able to in the last few months. I have a grandson who was born the day before the first lockdown in March last year and I have hardly seen him so I have missed out on nine or 10 months of his development. My hope would be that I can see a bit more of him and the rest of the family in the months and years to come and I have the same hope for everybody associated with the University. I hope they can get a bit more opportunity to spend time with the people that they wish to spend time with and not be so restricted by the circumstances as we have been since the early part of last year.