‘Mismatch of expectations’ poisoning Covid campus relations, says v-c

‘Students and their parents felt they were promised one thing, and they ended up receiving something else,’ says Edinburgh principal

November 26, 2020
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

Relations between students, staff and universities have been hampered by a “mismatch of expectations” over what campus life would be like in the midst of a global pandemic, according to a sector leader.

Peter Mathieson, principal of the University of Edinburgh, told Times Higher Education’s THE Live event that if he could have done one thing differently in his handling of the pandemic, he would “listen to the other generations a bit more effectively than we did”.

Many students had been disappointed to arrive on campuses this term and then find that much of their teaching was online, with some institutions being forced to abandon face-to-face tuition halfway through the semester due to rising coronavirus cases.

“We tried very hard to understand what students’ worries were, but perhaps we didn’t do that as effectively as we should,” Professor Mathieson said. “We ended up with a really significant mismatch of expectations, whereby students and their parents felt they were promised one thing, and they ended up receiving something else.”

Professor Mathieson said he believed that students’ best interests were served by on-campus activity, providing that it could be provided safely. “I believe it can and believe we’ve done so,” he said. “It was sticking to the courage of our convictions...I still believe that for January and subsequent terms.”

However, “perhaps the arguments would have been stronger if we had more really detailed data about what students want and what their expectations are”, he said.

Many staff have called for universities to move all of their teaching online. But Professor Mathieson said: “One thing that is very persuasive is that the students who do worse with an online delivery model are the ones from disadvantaged backgrounds, the ones we should perhaps be doing the most for.”

If the university had been able to “better articulate some of those motivations we might have been in a stronger position to counter those people who think a different model is the right one”, he added.

For Professor Mathieson, the “pandemic poses an existential threat to universities”, even those in ostensibly strong financial positions. Edinburgh was in a robust position pre-Covid but the hit to accommodation, catering and events, particularly due to the cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival, coupled with anxieties about international student recruitment, put even Edinburgh in a difficult situation, he explained.

“The problem is that it is not a one-year issue. We all need to make longer-term investments to ensure sustainability,” he said.

Dame Janet Beer, vice-chancellor of the University of Liverpool, agreed that although they had held up better than feared, international student admissions at undergraduate level “had been sliced in half”.

If universities want to attract and retain more international students, they will “have to take what we learned during the pandemic” about blended provision and make sure it’s an attractive offer. “It will take two to three years to really see what happens [with international students],” she said. 

The pandemic had also shown the importance of the relationships across city regions, with public health authorities and local councils, Dame Janet said.

“Our job to make sure, in universities, things are not the same again. We are learning to reach out to a broader set of constituents,” she said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Mismatch of expectations’ strains relations

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