Peter Mathieson on the perils of Hong Kong politics

As a Brit leading HKU, Peter Mathieson had no baggage. The University of Edinburgh’s new v-c tells Ellie Bothwell about academic freedom, internationalisation and being treated to taxi drivers’ views on students

May 31, 2018
Peter Mathieson, the former head of the University of Hong Kong and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh standing on a staircase
Source: Chris Close, reproduced with permission from the University of Edinburgh
Peter Mathieson, principal of the University of Edinburgh

When Peter Mathieson began his new role as vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, his staff were gearing up for one of UK higher education’s most bitter and high-profile industrial disputes in recent memory.

Of course, Edinburgh was not alone in facing major disruption – staff walkouts took place at 65 UK universities over 14 days in February and March in an ultimately successful attempt to force Universities UK to reconsider plans to convert the Universities Superannuation Scheme into a purely defined-benefit pension programme. But the timing of the dispute was particularly tricky in Mathieson’s case.

On his first day in the job, 1 February, he was attacked by the University and College Union for accepting a pay package that it put at £410,000 (including relocation costs of £26,000): 33 per cent larger than that enjoyed by his predecessor, Sir Tim O’Shea. According to the union, such “figures were extraordinary at a time when universities are under fire for the excessive pay and perks of their leaders and looking to slash the pension benefits of staff”.

In an interview with Times Higher Education on the first day of the strikes, Mathieson admits that the industrial dispute had “dominated” his first three weeks in the post, forcing him to “get to grips very quickly” with the issues at stake. But while the Cornishman has never previously had to deal with strikes as a university leader, he is no stranger to highly charged protests.

In late 2014, just five months after Mathieson became vice-chancellor of the University of Hong Kong (having moved from the University of Bristol, where he had been dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry), university staff and students became prominent among the leaders of the Occupy Central movement – also known as the Umbrella Movement – which protested against Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong and its decision to screen candidates standing in the 2017 election for the territory’s leadership.

Then, in 2015, the university’s council voted – against Mathieson’s wishes – to reject the appointment of a liberal professor to the post of pro vice-chancellor. This resulted in a row over academic freedom, with critics claiming that the candidate, Johannes Chan Man-mun, was voted down because he had close ties to a founder of Occupy Central. Students boycotted classes, laid siege to a subsequent council meeting (which led to two student leaders being convicted of criminal damage and disorderly conduct) and began an ultimately unsuccessful bid for a judicial review of the decision.

Some also took offence when Mathieson condemned the behaviour of the besieging students. His reaction was viewed as being inconsistent with the fact that he had attended an Umbrella Movement protest, although he insists that his stance was rooted in concerns over student safety and security.

Mathieson also faced accusations from students that he was against free speech. One flashpoint late in his tenure centred on a statement that he signed – alongside the heads of another nine Hong Kong universities – condemning the abuse of freedom of speech after banners advocating independence for the territory appeared on some Hong Kong campuses. “All universities undersigned agree that we do not support Hong Kong independence, which contravenes the Basic Law,” the statement read.

Mathieson is reported to have explained later that he signed to statement to avoid his university becoming “isolated”, but he did not regard discussion of Hong Kong independence as an abuse of freedom of expression. The statement, he tells THE, was “misinterpreted by many – I think in some cases wilfully and in some cases perhaps not” as a “condemnation of discussion of independence of Hong Kong”.

The abuses he was concerned about, he says, were calls for the celebration of the suicide of a son of a government official, and for the anniversary of 9/11 to be celebrated on campus.

For all the controversies, Mathieson argues that “being an outsider was an advantage” in Hong Kong. “I felt I went there with no baggage,” he says. “I had no political affiliations, I had no historical links with any particular viewpoint, I had no business or personal interests in Hong Kong, so I could be completely unfettered by any other consideration apart from the best interest of the university.”

However, although he was “welcomed by most” in the former colony, he admits that being British “could bring complications”. British rule, which ended in 1997, “is remembered by some with rose-coloured spectacles and by some with hostility”, Mathieson notes.

Nor did his “outsider” status exempt him from being dragged into politics.

Pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong in 2015
Taking a stand: protests such as this pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong in 2015 were a regular feature of Peter Mathieson’s tenure at HKU, and his stance on the behaviour of some besieging students caused some controversy

Taking a stand protests such as this pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong in 2015 were a regular feature of Peter Mathieson’s tenure at HKU, and his stance on the behaviour of some besieging students caused some controversy


“Education, including higher education, is politicised in Hong Kong,” he says. “I think that’s regrettable. It makes life more complicated, but, in a way, everything in Hong Kong is politicised…All sorts of things that don’t necessarily come from the political world all have a political angle on them and get interpreted in that way…So I think it’s just a fact about Hong Kong that people working in education have to accept.”

As an example, Mathieson cites his introduction of an initiative to allow all HKU students to spend time in mainland China, either to study or to do an internship. His view was that it would have been “foolish not to capitalise” on Hong Kong’s proximity to the mainland. But some at the university, he says, felt that the initiative was “unduly pro-China and that actually we should be resisting greater links with China. I never really agreed with that. I always think that there are fantastic opportunities for all the universities in Hong Kong that other universities elsewhere around the world are all trying to get – but because Hong Kong is right next door, and because it is part of China, it was much more obvious that we could form those kinds of links. It shouldn’t be about politics: it should be about educational value and developmental value for the students, unencumbered by politics.”

Mathieson adds that during his time at Hong Kong he managed to upset all factions in society “because sometimes I [was] perceived to have said or done something which was pro-establishment, and at another time I [was] perceived to have done something which was anti-establishment. I just feel I was consistently trying to prioritise the best interests of the university, and not think about whether I was going to please the establishment or not. That wasn’t my yardstick.”

If being an outsider in Hong Kong is an advantage, what does Mathieson make of the appointment of Xiang Zhang to succeed him? Like Mathieson when he joined HKU, Zhang has not led a university before; he was previously the Ernest Kuh endowed chair professor at the University of California, Berkeley and director of its Nanosciences and Nanoengineering Institute. The whole of his previous independent career was spent in the US, of which he is also a citizen. But Zhang grew up in China and earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Nanjing University.

“He’s an outsider of a different kind,” Mathieson says. “He’s not from Hong Kong, and he’s not worked in Hong Kong before.” That said, Mathieson admits that “it’s impossible to imagine that there won’t be some people who wonder whether, because he’s from mainland China originally, [he will] have particular behaviours or particular affiliations that they don’t welcome”.

As for whether Zhang’s appointment signals the end of the era of European and American expatriates being appointed to run Asia’s most prestigious higher education institutions, Mathieson is not convinced. He points out that Hong Kong’s professoriate is “roughly one-third from Hong Kong, one-third from mainland China and one-third international…The English-speaking nature of all of the tuition and the fact that the professoriate is very international are some defining features of HKU, and I hope that continues because I think it’s a strength.”

He also hopes that Asian universities continue to focus on appointing “the person who is best qualified for the job” rather than factoring in “ethnicity or racial background” when looking for new leaders.

While Mathieson refers several times to Hong Kong’s “spectrum of opinion”, one view that everyone in the territory appears to agree on is the enormous value of education.

University leaders in the West may envy that cultural consensus, especially at a time when many are struggling to convince the public of the value of higher education. But it is a “double-edged sword”, according to Mathieson. It “brings its complications because it means that everybody is interested in the university [HKU]”, he says.

“Even the most mundane things that were going on in the university would make headline news in a way that I don’t think they would in the UK. Taxi drivers and shopkeepers…would give me their opinion about the University of Hong Kong because I was very recognisable because I wasn’t Chinese, and I got a lot of exposure while I was there…People would literally walk up to me in the street sometimes and tell me what they thought about the university. Again, I don’t think that would happen very often in a British context.”

Many of the comments that he received were centred on the role of HKU students in the Occupy Central protests. “There were some people who felt that the students were rebellious or troublesome or should be getting on with their studies rather than worrying about protesting. And then there were others who felt quite the opposite: that students should be allowed or even encouraged to express themselves and that any attempt to harness them was to be decried.”

For all the local attention it receives, HKU is actually highly international: it came third in THE’s most recent list of the world’s most international universities , which is based on their proportion of overseas staff, students and cross-border research. But while internationalism is often seen as the key to excellence, it can also lead to accusations that successful universities neglect their local communities.

Writing in THE earlier this year, Singaporean academic Cherian George, a professor of media studies at Hong Kong Baptist University, argued that while Singapore’s two main public universities have acquired stellar global reputations, “their contribution to the country’s intellectual life is relatively modest.

“While many other universities are seeking desperately to overcome their parochialism and climb university rankings by internationalising, ours have the opposite problem,” he wrote (“Global heroes, local zeros”).

And in January, Karen Maex, rector magnificus of the University of Amsterdam, argued in a speech that institutions in the Netherlands spend too little time thinking about the “optimal balance” between Dutch and international student recruitment, and between courses delivered in Dutch and English. Universities have to “recognise and set the limits of growth in internationalisation”, she said.

Peter Mathieson surrounded by a group of students in Hong Kong
Entering the fray: Mathieson met students objecting to the rejection of the appointment of a liberal scholar at HKU in an effort to calm the protests

Entering the fray Mathieson met students objecting to the rejection of the appointment of a liberal scholar at HKU in an effort to calm the protests


Mathieson accepts that universities need to “balance” their international ambitions and their obligations to their local communities and countries. But he does not think that local and international ambitions are “mutually exclusive”. He believes that HKU could do more to improve its position on the world stage. “THE data show that the reputation of HKU is strongest in Asia, and the further you go afield from Asia the less recognition there is of HKU’s standing.” At the same time, the university serves its local community “terrifically well”, Mathieson insists, noting that government quotas require at least 80 per cent of undergraduates in the territory’s public universities to come from Hong Kong. He also thinks that the local people who show such an interest in the university’s activities do so because they feel that it has an impact on their lives.

HKU’s campus “is a public campus. It has its own MTR [Mass Transit Railway] station. A lot of people come just to visit the university and look at some of the buildings…so there’s a lot of interaction between the public and the university,” he says. “And one of the reasons why shopkeepers and taxi drivers talk to me about it is because I think they care about the university. They know it’s important, they know it’s one of the things that Hong Kong is known for around the world, and they’re proud of it.”

The international issue is also one that Mathieson has thought about in the context of the University of Edinburgh: a Scottish institution that educates a large number of English students. According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, Audit Scotland and the Scottish Funding Council, about 13 per cent of all students in Scotland go to Edinburgh, although only 7 per cent of Scottish-domiciled students do.

When Mathieson was first appointed, he told THE that he was most “persuaded” to apply for the job because of the “degree of match that there seemed to be between what Edinburgh were looking for and what I thought I had to offer”. For instance, he felt that his experience working in Asia gave him unique credentials to drive the Scottish institution’s internationalisation efforts (about 35 per cent of its students currently come from outside the European Union), while his “widening participation background” also fitted the university’s goals around access.

He stands by these aims and is “really keen to try to make university education accessible to all”. Mathieson became the first member of his family to go to university, thanks to a widening participation scheme, and he feels that “everything good that has happened in my life has been the result of education”.

Scotland’s progress in widening participation has been slow. A 2016 report from Audit Scotland argued that the country’s free tuition policy for Scottish-domiciled students means that its universities receive much less cash than their English counterparts do. This means that it is getting harder for Scots to go to university because the number of applications is increasing faster than the number of places.

But Edinburgh has been working hard to address these issues, Mathieson insists. For instance, it entered clearing last year for the first time in order to offer places to applicants from the least affluent 20 per cent of postcodes in the country, and to those who had spent time in local authority care.

It is “too early” for Mathieson to “give any detailed answers” on his strategy for Edinburgh, but his observations are that “it is a university with a fantastic research reputation and a great international profile, [but] there are aspects of student satisfaction that are not as good as the university would wish”.

He attributes the institution’s low ranking in the National Student Survey – it was joint 90th in last year’s exercise – to the fact that Edinburgh students credit the city more than the university for the enjoyment they have while studying. The university is also “dispersed quite widely across the city”, has “a lot of old buildings, some of which are not ideal for modern university functions”, and “doesn’t have a campus identity”.

Before joining Edinburgh, Mathieson expected his Hong Kong experience of handling the “political complexities” of “dealing with two governments and the media interest and the public interest” to “prepare me very well for Scotland”, given that Edinburgh will “have its own complexities” around Brexit. He says that he is still learning about the Scottish context and the University of Edinburgh and is not sure, in reality, how much of his Hong Kong experience “will map across”. But one thing that he will certainly retain from his Asian experience is his leadership style.

“I’m the same,” he says. “I’m driven by the same ideals, and I will do the best I can for the reputation of the University of Edinburgh. That’s what I see as my mission. So, in that sense, there’s no difference.” 


Print headline: The outsider

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Reader's comments (4)

Come back to Asia to visit us. You are an okay guy.
This Briton should stay in his known turf: Europe. Asia is too treacherous for you.
British influence in Hong Kong is diminishing fast.
Universities in Hong Kong are losing their autonomy.