Universities can be intimidating to students, being large institutions full of bureaucratic structures that can feel cold and impersonal. In recent years, however, particularly post-Covid, many universities have aimed to make the human element a top priority. In other words, to ensure that the lived experience of students at the university lives up to the policies and procedures that are ostensibly intended to protect them.
GoodCourse spoke to Paul Grice, Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh, about how speaking directly with students about their needs is the key to creating a campus that feels safe and comfortable for everyone.
For 20 years, I was the clerk and chief executive of the Scottish Parliament, but I had a governor role on a university governing board as well. I was also a scientific advisory board member on a big piece of research at Cambridge University and became interested in Higher Education (HE). So when the opportunity arose to run a university, I was delighted to be given that chance.
The starting point was acknowledging the importance of getting people back on campus and fostering that. At our university, due to the number of health science students, we actually had people on campus all the way through, often in full PPE. It wasn’t ideal, but it probably made it easier for us. We also understood that while some people were eager to return, others were nervous so we responded to that by working hard to create a safe environment and to make sure people knew that. We had several initiatives to ensure the campus was safe, well-ventilated, and had good signage so people felt comfortable coming back. As soon as we could, we went back to normal, but we recognised throughout that Covid has left scars on people. We wanted to be sensitive and understand that many new students coming in had a very disrupted education before they got to us. We wanted to ensure they had support to make that transition as easy as possible.
There are some similarities. They’re both people businesses. Working in a parliament is fascinating. It’s a maelstrom of all sorts of things — policies, politics, people. A university is quite similar. There are a lot of different constituencies within both institutions. Within parliament, you’ve got MPs, their staff, political parties, your staff, and people, and these all have to be managed in a way that’s harmonious but respects their differences. In a university, you’ve got students at different levels, staff, and different disciplines. You start by accepting and relishing those differences and acknowledging that their intentions with each other — their needs and demands — are quite different. Whilst there’s a big overlap between what staff and students want, they’re not the same. So I brought 20 years of that knowledge and learned how to manage that, sometimes the hard way!
We’re always working hard to foster an inclusive culture. To that end, we’ve brought in some external experts — a person called Professor Paul Miller and his team have come in initially to help with anti-racism initiatives but actually doing a wider cultural review, which ties into our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives. One thing I’ve learned in life is you have to be real and open. If you’re going to be inclusive, you have to be prepared to ask questions and even if you get told some things that disappoint you, that’s how you take action and create that open culture. Paul has helped us gain a deeper understanding of how our students and staff think.
A lot of the results are encouraging. For example, our student population is almost 80% female, and our staff population is almost 70% female. We’ve also had the benefit of many international students from around 90 different countries. A fantastic part of the university experience is meeting people from countries worldwide. And since we’re a relatively small university, with only about 4,500 students on campus, that’s an intimate environment for them to interact with each other. But we also have to work to make those students feel comfortable. Policies and procedures are one thing but actual lived experience is what matters, and I try my very best to model that personally. I’m very present on campus, talking to students and staff to hear their experiences.
Students aren’t a breed apart or some different species! They’re just normal people at a particular phase of their life doing something often quite extraordinary, so one needs to understand that.
Students aren’t a breed apart or some different species! They’re just normal people at a particular phase of their life doing something often quite extraordinary, so one needs to understand that. And if you can create a sense of trust, they’ll talk to you and tell you when issues arise, and you can learn from that. We have a whole range of specific initiatives but underpinning it all is a culture of openness. For example, I’ve talked to some Black students about microaggressions. As a white, middle-aged man, it’s not something I’ve suffered, and didn’t understand quite what it meant. When I talked to them and learned about their lived experience, that was a real insight. Tackling that is difficult, but you do it through culture, openness, talking, and accepting that it exists in the first place.
I’m also lucky to have fantastic people around me. Yes, I have the prime responsibility and privilege of leading the organisation but some of the most inspiring members of my staff are in relatively junior positions. But they’re also often the ones that have the greatest impact on the students. And I do hope that when they see me out and about talking one-on-one with students that it encourages them as well.