EDINBURGH University’s next principal has promised radical action to boost the number of students coming from poorer communities.
Professor Peter Mathieson, currently president of Hong Kong University, is due to take up his new post in the Capital early next year.
He said previous efforts to improve access for people from deprived backgrounds had not produced good enough results. Figures for 2015-16 show just 5.2 per cent of new undergraduates at Edinburgh came from the poorest 20 per cent of Scotland, a three-year low. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has set a target of 20 per cent of new undergraduates coming from the most deprived fifth of the country’s population by 2030.
He said offering lower entry grades depending on background could be part of the solution, but it was “not a panacea”. He suggested head teachers in certain schools could instead single out the most promising students for tailored support.
Professor Mathieson, 57, said he was the first person in his family to go to university and was determined that others from similar backgrounds did not limit their aspirations.
He said: “I’m a passionate believer in widening access, and that’s quite largely based on my own experience.
“I really identify with the issues of less privileged parts of society. I often tell people everything good that has happened in my life is a result of education, that I was given opportunities despite my background.
“I think it’s important for a university like Edinburgh to make progress. But at the moment it’s not achieving the results they want.”
Professor Mathieson has never lived in Scotland, but his father William Archibald Mathieson - who died when he was seven - was born and brought up in Edinburgh.
He said: “I have very few memories of my father but one memory I do have of him is standing in the castle in Edinburgh, surveying the city, and him telling me this is where he came from.
“When I walk around the streets of Edinburgh, I look up at the castle and think of my father. I think he’d be proud to see me leading the University of Edinburgh. Although I’ve never lived in Scotland, I sort of feel my roots are there and my father’s home town is a very suitable place for me to come and finish my career.”
Professor Mathieson, who is currently paid around £600,000 a year, is taking a big pay cut to move to Scotland. Current principal Professor Tim O’Shea has a salary of around £227,000.
And Professor Mathieson has experienced a minor backlash in Hong Kong since his appointment was announced.
His resignation half way through his term at Hong Kong University has been described as “irresponsible”. One angry columnist in the South China Morning Post wrote that the establishment was “aghast” at this “outsider” jumping ship, under a headline “Peter Mathieson does not deserve Hong Kong”.
Professor Mathieson, a specialist in renal medicine, said most people had been understanding about his decision, even if the lower salary “raised a lot of eyebrows”. But he said: “I don’t think I’ll be a pauper with what Edinburgh will pay me.”
Professor Mathieson described Brexit as a “very bad decision” but pledged to make the best of it, seeing potential opportunities for closer ties with Asia in particular. On independence, he said Brexit had “changed the conversation”. But he added: “You won’t find me or any of the other university leaders nailing their colours to one camp or the other.”