The Saint sits down with Sally

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Photo: Sammi Cardi

Last Friday, The Saint sat down with Principal Sally Mapstone to discuss a number of issues, both current and ongoing, pertaining to St Andrews students.

Our previous interview with the principal served as a means of introducing her to the student body. Though as Professor Mapstone was quick to point out, she is no longer “new,” having held the role of principal for 18 months. It seems to be a difficult label to escape, with no defined period of time which might cause the stamp to elapse.

It therefore seemed best to ask what achievement, in her term so far, she was most proud of that may come to define her time here.

In response Professor Mapstone was adamant that her role in the acquisition of Madras College has proved the most defining and has been her proudest achievement to date.

“The acquisition of that site I think is going to be a game-changer for the University. Strategically, I think our plan is to go up to another level in the next five or 10 years. We are an excellent University already, but we want to be identified as a university that’s aspirational, that’s modern and that does the best for its staff and students.”

Although the student body may be aware of the purchase of Madras, the use of the site has yet to be revealed and even the principal seemed contemplative on some aspects of the renovation.

“Behind the wonderful mock-jacobean and mock-medieval cloisters there is a lot of buildings that will need to come down, and then we will have a set of buildings and then empty space behind them.

“We are absolutely clear that the use of the site will be academic and educational so it will be for staff and students. We are not going to relocate […] my office there. The emphasis is going to be what’s at the heart of the University which is education.”

Professor Mastone did affirm that the new Madras College would serve as “additional library space.”

This seems to be a response to concerns among the student body that library spaces are too few and far between, especially during examperiods.

“When we have knocked down all the terrible ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s buildings that are currently on the site, we have space for approximately three academic schools.”

The current uncertainty regarding the site seems to stem from which academic schools to place on the new site.

“So we could co-locate international relations, economics and finance and management, that would be one possibility and make it a kind of social science college.

“Or we could relocate and co-locate some of our arts schools that are currently on a number of different sites. So history would be an example, also modern languages. Or we could do a mixture of the two; we could put history and IR next to each other which could be quite convenient.”

The acquisition of Madras College may be Professor Mapstone’s proudest achievement to date, however, for the sake of balance The Saint enquired as to whether she had any regrets in her term so far.

To this the principal was quick to reply, “nobody is without regret.” Although her only reservation in her time spent so far was that things simply don’t move fast enough for her liking.

“One of the things you always realise in academia is that things take longer than you want them to.”

She continued, “Occasionally things take longer than one might have wished and one’s very aware of the kind of impact that it can have on the community.”

 

Strike Action

It would seem that currently, that community Professor Mapstone refers to – the staff and students of a small coastal town in Fife – is at a tense moment in its history.

Strike action from the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) is set to begin today across the country and increase in frequency over the coming weeks.

With 16 pickets planned by the St Andrews Socialist Society and a great number of lecturers set to strike, opinion is divided among the student body and staff alike and the situation can undoubtedly be characterised as tense.

As a former lecturer herself, having spent time at the University of Oxford where she can count cabinet member Michael Gove among her former pupils, Professor Mapstone began by affirming that she supported the right to strike.

“I will always support the right to strike because I think that’s a fundamental right…

“However, it is important to bear in mind that this is a national dispute, it is not something that is local to St Andrews although the strikes are local.”

Nonetheless, she asserted that it was her responsibility as principal to consider the University’s standing in the long term and this was subsequently why she was not in favour of the proposed UCU strikes. “[The UCU are] taking action because their proposals were not endorsed by the independent chair of the joint negotiating community of the Universities Superannuation Scheme […] and I think it’s also important to bear in mind that had their proposals been supported the effect on staff and students at this University over time would have been very serious, because both staff and the University would have had to make greater contributions to the pension scheme and we can’t afford to do this.

She continued, “What that would have meant was that we would have had to cease making as many appointments of staff as we are able to make now. Our staff-student ratios would have deteriorated and the student experience would deteriorate.

“So my responsibility as principal is to take the long-term view for the University and that is why I am not supportive of the UCU action on this occasion.”

“The proposals that UUK (Universities UK) put on the table, which were endorsed by the independent chair of the joint negotiating committee, are those that have the greatest chance of securing the pension scheme long-term for all our staff.

“So this is a tough one; USS is the story that nobody wants to tell and nobody wants to hear, but this is a pension scheme that is in crisis. So while I understand and will always support the right to strike, I think that it is misplaced on this occasion.”

Members of the UCU are not required by law to inform their employer if they plan to take strike action, thus the University is in the dark over how significant the impact of industrial action will be.

However, when asked, Professor Mapstone anticipated that the impending strikes will be “patchy.”

“I have seen various periods of industrial action over my career, and one of the things that is regularly the case in relation to it is that it is unpredictable and patchy. So it is hard to know. It is also hard to know how long the strike action will necessarily go on for.

“If the action happens in the first week [we will] see a considerable amount of action but I think it will be patchy and I think it will be in certain areas.

“We are of course thinking through contingency plans; we have made it very clear to staff what the implications of strike action is. And as you know we have put out advice to students. What I can reassure you of is that we will be monitoring this on a very, very regular basis and whenever we can give meaningful updates in relation to it we will do. And of course we are in touch with our fellow universities and with UUK.”

Professor Mapstone was keen to announce that provisions had been made to bring in independent financial assistance to staff members.

“We will hold a number of meetings for members of staff in which independent financial people will be able to give information. I’m deliberately not saying advice here because it is very difficult to give financial advice on pensions and indeed there are legal questions.

“But what we are going to do is provide information-giving sessions in relation to the new pension proposals, where staff will be able to hear from financial people who will be independent of the University.”

Although independent information will be provided to staff on the future of their pensions, The Saintpressed the principal on what staff should be doing instead of taking industrial action at this given time.

“I think it’s for UCU members to decide what they should do [sic]. I don’t want to advise them other than to ask them to think responsibly about the potential impact of strike action on our student body.

“But to be very frank, I know that most of them will do that. I think that our staff have a very responsible, thoughtful and caring attitude to students and I would trust them really seriously to really think through the potential implications of their actions.”

Although the principal seemed optimistic of the coming weeks, only time will tell the ramifications on students of prospective strike action.

From one dividing issue, our line of questioning bounced quickly onto another.

Brexit

Almost two years on from the Brexit referendum result, The Saint asked how Professor Mapstone saw her role as principal in the negotiations.

No sooner than the question was asked, she could not withhold a small giggle.

“I think if you asked some of our MPs they would say that […] it’s the myth of the eternal return as far as they’re concerned. It’s a subject that I endlessly bring up.”

She continued, “Our key role is to emphasise that we are a major international university with a very significant staff and student profile from Europe and in relation to Europe and we are determined to maintain that identity.

“So lobbying […] is really important with both the UK and Scottish governments and, at a local level, is one of the most important things that I do and that I do on a really regular basis.”

Despite her concerns, Professor Mapstone was optimistic about the future of St Andrews.

“I think we are in a better place than we were a year ago now in terms of […] the perspective of free status of EU students, from the perspective of engagement in research funding over the next few years and in terms of citizens’ rights and immigration.

“No one would say where we’ve got to is perfect, but it’s rather more positive than we thought it was going to be a year ago. We have to keep the pressure up in all sorts of areas, both with the UK administration and with ScotGov and we are absolutely doing that.”

When Professor Mastone first spoke to The Saint at the beginning of her tenure, she spoke of a “baptism of fire,” having arrived at a time of “considerable [political] turbulence and disruption.”

However, a year down the line she is abundantly clear on exactly what she wanted from the UK government.

“[They need to] just come right out and clarify matters in regards to immigration. “[There are] concerns about immigration from our current staff and prospective staff and in relation to our students; ‘what precisely are the details really going to be?’; ‘how easy is it going to be to come and go?’”

She continued, “I think getting absolute clarity on those issues would be the greatest thing in this regard the UK government could do. We also know that there are some areas in relation to research funding that are not quite as clear as they could be where we are really dependent on statements the UK government made some time ago and we are pushing for clarification on those.

“So at the moment it’s all about clarification and certainty this makes such a difference to how people feel about the UK and how they feel about St Andrews.”

 

Accommodation

Notwithstanding Brexit and the upcoming strikes, there are a number of other issues facing the students of St Andrews at present. Perhaps the most obvious being accomodation.

It is a topic that The Saint routinely covers, and an issue that is largely unique to this quaint Scottish town.

The great influx of students that flood St Andrews as summer turns to autumn brings with it a drastic increase in the population of the town.

As a result of this international mass-migration, the prestige of “the home of golf” as well as the HMO ban, students end up paying a premium for housing.

It therefore came as a surprise that Professor Mapstone stated that the University was exploring the possibility of raising student numbers to

10,000 ‒ an almost 10 per cent increase on current numbers.

“Our current numbers are the highest they’ve been […] that is growth that we intended to achieve.”“We still think that it is possible to take our numbers […] over the next five years to 10,000. But we are looking very carefully, as you will know we are undertaking a strategic planning process at the moment.

“So within the work that we are doing in relation to the plan we are looking really carefully at how achievable 10,000 is, what proportions it should be between graduates and undergraduates and over what period do we think it is achievable.”

In September 2018, the University will also open the doors of two new halls of residence, Powell and Whitehorn halls. These halls will have a combined capacity of 389 beds.

“We are absolutely doing our best. The investment which has come into the University for student accommodation over the past few years is somewhere in the order of about £70 million.

“So the University is really seeking to provide – I think this is an important point – good quality, well-supported accommodation for as many of its students as possible.”

However, the question of affordable accomodation lingered. The newly constructed Powell and Whitehorn halls will not offer more affordable tenancy for prospective or current students.

The cheapest halls of residence, Albany Park, only houses roughly 3 per cent of the University population at £3,915 per annum.

 Furthermore, self-catered en-suite tenancy in the new halls of residence is almost £500 more expensive than the pre-existing buildings.

In her first interview with The Saint, Professor Mapstone stated that housing cost was a key point to consider when it came to student housing concerns.

We therefore asked what was being done to make accomodation more accessible to students.

“In terms of pricing, I think one of the things that one has to remember is that we put a lot into accommodation. It’s not just that you get a room you get very decent accommodation, you get warden support and in some instances you get food and provisions.

“Also you get wifi. There’s a lot that gets rolled into this to make sure that students aren’t getting these charges on top. That said, we have to make sure that when we are providing all those services they actually are charges that can offset properly in terms of our budgeting arrangements.”

She continued, “So that’s broadly speaking where the pricing structures come from but I think that it is also fair to say that, particularly in relation to reconfigured Albany Park but also across the piece, that we can offer a range of opportunities available to students. What I certainly don’t want to see is the feeling that there are some accommodation blocks that can only afford less in terms of accommodation. I don’t think we should be dividing our accommodation in that regard.”

Professor Mapstone also emphasised the financial support lower-income students receive from the University and the changes that had been made to the system.

“When I arrived I was very concerned to understand the provision that we had in terms of support for students who might find it difficult to meet their accomodation charges and I found it slightly curious that the arrangement we had seemed to offer coverage for students in terms of bursary support for two years rather than four years. But I was given to understand that it was the arrangement worked out between the Students’ Association and the University.”

She continued, “Obviously in this area we need to be guided in part by what students think they need in terms of provision. However it did seem important that we should look at provision across the piece and see if it was possible to roll out bursary provision that would last for all four years and would also give students flexibility in terms of whether they wished to use their provision for maintenance or accommodation support.”

“At the moment we put nearly £1 million a year into student support and I think it’s significant that the University does offer that kind of accommodation support.”

Student Welfare

However, as the University is exploring the possibility of expanding the number of students, it runs the risk of placing stress on other aspects of the institution. In University Court minutes of this year, the University acknowledged an increase in the number of students reporting mental health concerns, predominantly depression, to Student Services. The minutes also acknowledged that Fife and Tayside local NHS services “struggle” with the number of students during term time, as the service is predominantly designed to cater for the local population.

Therefore The Saint asked if Student Services was struggling and if so what provisions were being made to combat this.

“I do not think University Student Services is struggling, and I think it would be irresponsible to say that. I think they take a very responsible approach to student welfare and I think we as a University have a very good record in terms of student welfare. That being said, there is always room for improvement. What we are trying to do with student services at the moment is take a really sensible look across the piece, and there are a number of reasons for this.

“You’ve raised it I think tangentially, but I would really want to put on the table the whole question of mental health. This is something that matters to me very much in terms of student welfare but actually it also matters very much in terms of staff welfare.”

She continued, “I think one of the things that’s happened in our culture recently – and in many ways it’s a good thing – is that students and staff are more willing to talk about mental health issues and to disclose them, because they feel that the culture is much more supportive and there is a recognition that most of us in some stage of our lives will probably encounter some form of mental health issue, and there should not be stigma attached to that.”

“What we are looking at in terms of Student Services is trying to move to a situation where we can triage the cases that we get in a smarter way, by which I mean that in many instances what presents itself as a mental health concern can sometimes can be dealt with really early on with good advice through counselling, through support and through the use of welfare structures. There will always be cases that are more severe and more long-standing than that and what we need to get better at is to triage and identify those cases and make sure that we try and provide ready support to students and staff as appropriately as possible.”

It was clear that mental health was an issue Professor Mapstone was passionate about; another one close to her heart is that of inclusivity and diversity at the University of St Andrews, a matter the principal characterises as “nuanced.”

Diversity

Following a Saint investigation in 2016, it was revealed that the University of St Andrews only employed one black full-time academic for the majority of years between 2010 and 2015. The Saint therefore asked what Professor Mapstone was doing to promote diversity among staff and students.

“It’s easy to think that diversity is just about gender because we have all paid so much attention to that, but this University does really need to think more about issues of ethnicity at student level and at staff level. You’re quite right that our proportion of staff of colour is smaller than we would wish it to be and that’s something that I’m actively seeking to engage us in.”

She continued, providing an example of the work being done, “We are having a gender inclusivity and diversity research group working day in May, and the guest speaker of that is a professor from the University of Warwick who has been in touch with me over the year in relation to the absence of black female professors at this University.

“We have invited her to come and address us on the questions of exactly how we as a University can make ourselves more attractive. And I think this is, to those from ethnic backgrounds, this is a really important issue because we all know that role models and visibility are where you can actually make a difference. There are five of us in this room [during the interview]; nobody is visibly a person of colour, and the messages that one gives out by actually reaching out – making it clear that sometimes you need to vary, change or make more inclusive your recruitment practices – can really make a big deal.”

Professor Mapstone also expressed excitement over the visit of the namesake of Powell Hall, Renee Powell, “a person of enormous charisma and energy,” an African-American former professional golfer and honorary graduate of the University of St Andrews. She is due to visit later in the year to open the halls of residence that bears her name.

Professor Mapstone further asserted that while she had made gender her focus in her first year, “In my second year I’ve been seeking to do more work in relation to ethnicity and what I’ve been doing to start with is inviting in for conversations members of staff and also students who have expressed an interest in this area. Because I know that I need to draw on the experience of those who have been thinking a lot about these issues and can see things that we might do to try and up our visibility and our engagement.

“So that’s a piece of work that I’m really taking forward myself at present. It will take some time to see the outcomes of that, but what I hope it will lead us to is recruitment practice that is seen as really genuinely inclusive across the piece at both staff and student levels. Now like all the best things, that takes a bit of time to roll out but it is emphatically a priority for me.”

Future of St Andrews

Throughout the interview, there had been much discussion looking forward.

Therefore, it seemed fitting to ask as a final question what the principal’s vision for the future of St Andrews looked like.

“I want to take St Andrews up to another level. I think we are a brilliant university as it is, but one of the great things I’ve learnt in a long time in academia and one of the things that attracted me to St Andrews is that you can always do even better if you want to do better and we have the potential to be some thing very special in the next 10 years.

“We are an extremely successful, highly international, small but high-quality University with a very strong identity. I think that kind of identity in this rather chequered world in which we now live will become all the more important and I want St Andrews to be identified as the University that is seen as top flight in Scotland, but also has a kind of relevance and quality and ambition that makes it really relevant globally and that’s where I want to take us.”

After what felt like only a brief conversation, although almost an hour had passed since we first shook hands, Professor Mapstone had one last thing to add which encapsulated her ambitious and forward-thinking attitude towards the governance of this University.

“I think it’s possible to go into a sort of holding pattern at present because of all the uncertainty, but I think that would be a complete mistake. I think the biggest mistake a university like this can make is to stay in the same place. You have to keep going.”

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