Peter Mathieson
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Peter Mathieson appears to be a man at ease. Wearing a grey suit and one of his “12 or so” University of Hong Kong (HKU) ties, the 55-year-old Englishman sits back in his 10th-floor office and reflects on his new role. “I’m happy about the way it’s gone – in terms of the way I feel, in terms of the way I’ve been received, in terms of my personal life,” he says four months into his tenure as HKU’s vice-chancellor and president.

While not dodging the fact that his appointment a year ago was greeted with a fierce backlash among students, alumni and staff, he plays the controversy down as though it were simply another occupational hazard. So how has he responded to the disapproval that included accusations from senior colleagues of being “ignorant and incapable” and of having “a complete lack of understanding” of China and Hong Kong?

“I’ve learned a hell of a lot in the last six months,” says Prof Mathieson, who was previously dean of the faculty of medicine and dentistry at the University of Bristol in the UK. “The politics here is complicated and rapidly changing, so you’ve got to run to keep up. But I’m enjoying it and so far it seems to be going OK.”

The political situation is certainly complex – and now Prof Mathieson is “enmeshed” in it. Hong Kong is in the grip of a fierce dispute between Beijing loyalists and democracy activists who have brought areas of the city to a standstill with a campaign of peaceful civil disobedience. Occupy Central, one of the groups involved in the “umbrella revolution” protests, was founded by an HKU professor, while one of the movement’s student leaders is an HKU student. Hailing from Hong Kong’s former colonial power – which never gave local people the vote – Prof Mathieson is in a sensitive position.

He deftly steers through the topic of the territory’s universal suffrage, stating his support for democratic principles while refusing to align himself with the activists, whose campaigns Beijing has labelled “illegal”, and warning that “getting to the goal is one thing, but the method of getting there can have unintended consequences; people have to be very careful about that”.

Beyond politics, Prof Mathieson finds himself head of an institution in an enviable position. Founded in 1911, HKU is arguably the most venerable university in the Chinese territory, with a history and brand that Mathieson admits “must irritate the hell out of younger universities”. It is also healthily funded, he says – when colleagues complain of being under-resourced, he feels “like saying to them, ‘you should try working in the UK’ – because actually the contrast is really striking”.

Perhaps HKU’s most striking advantage, however, is its role as an English-speaking university in greater China – a unique bridge between the rising Asian giant and the established western academic order. This has helped generate fierce competition for entry; with almost 50,000 applicants for about 3,400 spaces for 2013-14, “we get the best students, so we’re in a great position: we are attractive to students and staff”, says Prof Mathieson. (Government policy is that 80 per cent of undergraduate places must go to Hong Kong “locals”.)

But the university’s biggest challenge, he says, is to avoid resting on its laurels. In recent years HKU has successfully manoeuvred the potentially wrenching change from a three-year to a four-year curriculum, built a new state of the art campus housing the faculties of arts, law and social science, and celebrated its centenary.

Prof Mathieson says the biggest danger now “is to avoid any kind of loss of momentum, to avoid any complacency based on 100 years of distinguished heritage and to seize the opportunities which face us now – of which mainland China is clearly the major one”.

At a time when Beijing is extending its political influence over its territory, Prof Mathieson swiftly quashes the notion that there is a conflict between maintaining HKU’s heritage as an English-speaking university and embracing the future as Hong Kong becomes ever more assimilated into its mainland parent.

Heads on the block: pro-democracy activists have their heads shaved in protest at the Beijing government last month

“Hong Kong is part of China now and in 33 years will be even more a part of China, so that has to be the future. But I don’t think that’s at the expense of [HKU] being a global university – the two are inextricably linked. Every university in the UK, and probably in North America and Australasia as well, wants links with mainland China.

“As an English-speaking university in China, with our heritage, 100-year history and links with distinguished universities around the world, we’re fantastically placed to exploit the opportunities in the mainland and I don’t want to be deflected by politics from achieving that.”

However, just as Prof Mathieson is aware HKU is in a privileged position, he realises it will require canny handling to maintain its status. He says HKU cannot simply ride on China’s coat tails for ever. “There’s going to come a time when they no longer need Hong Kong or HKU as a window to the rest of the world. I don’t know how long that period will be – probably 10 or 20 years. The opportunity for us is now and if we don’t seize it, we’ll miss it.”

And HKU’s position in global league tables is under threat. It slipped two places to 28th in the QS World University Rankings 2014/15, although its nearest rival, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, suffered an even greater decline, dropping six places to 40th. Among Asia-Pacific universities, HKU – once regarded as the region’s premier institution – was in second place but remained the number one in greater China.

Prof Mathieson brushes aside the notion that such rankings should dictate university policy. “We have to aspire to excellence in everything we do,” he says. “We have to pursue the initiatives we think are in the best interests of the university and if we do everything successfully the league tables will follow, and if the league tables don’t follow then they’re not judging the criteria we want to be judged by.”

Competitors have also stolen a march on HKU in their links to business. Prof Mathieson admits initial surprise at the slowness with which the university seems to have built alliances with the corporate world, suggesting there should be a requirement “that we contribute more to society, we engage more with industry, we have more spin-out from our research”.

Research into Sars at HKU’s department of microbiology

But with the territory’s days as an industrial hub long behind it, if HKU is to build relationships with industry, “we’re going to have to look outside Hong Kong, including the mainland”. To that end, it has embarked on a series of ventures with mainland organisations. There is a business school partnership with Fudan University in Shanghai, where students can gain an HKU international MBA, and HKU describes Zhejiang Institute of Research and Innovation in eastern China as “an extension into the Chinese mainland of the research conducted by the University of Hong Kong”.

In Shenzhen, the nearest mainland city to Hong Kong, HKU has been building a hospital. The project became mired in controversy this summer when it emerged there was discord between HKU and the Shenzhen government over their respective funding commitments. Media reports suggested with the hospital running at only a quarter of its capacity, HKU had already spent HK$200m ($26m) and stood to lose many hundreds of millions more over the next decade.

Prof Mathieson denies this, saying his “current understanding” is that the money will not be lost – but he suggests the project was set up without the crucial goal to “augment our teaching and create new research opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist”. While pulling the plug on the project “has to be an option”, he still sees “enough opportunity” to “remain engaged”.

The need for such partnerships, Prof Mathieson says, “is another reason why we should overcome the practical and political issues concerning the relationship with the mainland, because this is another area where we need to develop”.

As he sets out his plans to navigate HKU through the tricky waters ahead, Prof Mathieson hopes his critics will judge him on his “actions and on the outcomes”.

“Clearly, as soon as I do something stupid or make a big mistake, these people will probably come back, but I consider my job quite simple. I’ve got to do what’s best for HKU and not be deflected by politics, or finance, or individuals. Basically I’ve just got to keep my eye on the ball.”

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