How one of Scotland's leading universities recovered from Covid - and meet the civil servant driving change

Queen Margaret University chief on life after the Scottish Parliament

Not many people experience running a university or a Parliament in their careers, and even fewer can say they have done both.

In Scotland, Sir Paul Grice is the only person who boasts that kind of CV.

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The principal of Queen Margaret University (QMU), who was previously clerk and chief executive of the Scottish Parliament for two decades, said there were many differences and similarities between the jobs.

“I was in Parliament yesterday, so it reminded me what that felt like,” he said in an exclusive interview with The Scotsman at QMU’s modern campus in Musselburgh.

“One obvious difference is when we are in semester time, there are literally thousands of generally young people just around. The Parliament doesn’t have that feel to it.

“The day is a bit little less structured, because my job was very much based around the parliamentary business.

“What is similar is it’s about people, it’s about running an organisation. It’s about trying to create a sense of purpose, a lot of problem-solving. Usually not big problems. That is very similar.”

Sir Paul did face one extremely large problem not long after arriving at QMU towards the end of 2019, in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“One thing that helped me, one thing in the Parliament we had practised a lot of, given it’s a Parliament, is ‘what would happen?’ he said.

“A lot of contingency planning. I had done quite a lot of that and realised very quickly that we just had to move very fast.”

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An incident management team was stood up immediately, meeting daily for three months, to deal with protecting students and staff, and moving courses online.

QMU was also used as a vaccination site, while the university continued to be a key trainer of Scotland’s nurses.

"I look back on it now and it does seem slightly surreal - we worked at such an intensity,” the 62-year-old said.

"It was a slightly strange feeling. I would look out of my window and there would be nurses in full PPE walking in columns across to the big sports hall we were using as a training area, because they had to keep doing basic training before they were allowed to go on the ward.

“We had a dispensation to keep that going, but the place had a sort of eerie feeling with people going around it in masks and gowns.”

As well as moving courses online during the pandemic, classes would be held outside at QMU, with the experience cementing a belief in the benefits of outdoor learning at the university. It has since invested in an outdoor learning hub, and is putting outdoor learning at the heart of its primary teacher training course, which was launched in 2019. More than 100 students are now enrolling in the course each year, with the graduation last year of QMU’s first trained teachers representing a “landmark moment”.

About 12 per cent of QMU’s undergraduates are now studying education. “From a standing start, that is phenomenal," said Sir Paul.

Queen Margaret UniversityQueen Margaret University
Queen Margaret University | QMU

The addition of education courses, alongside other new offerings such as paramedic science, create a sense of an institution that is on the up, despite the financial challenges faced by the higher education sector.

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Its campus is well positioned, near new housing developments in the south of Edinburgh and west of East Lothian, while benefiting from being next to Musselburgh rail station, the A1 road and the Edinburgh city bypass.

Earlier this year, work started at the site on the new Edinburgh Innovation Hub, a joint venture between East Lothian Council and QMU, which will comprise flexible laboratory, office and conference spaces for rent by high growth small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Sir Paul said he believed it would be “transformational for the university”.

QMU also stands out in other ways, such as the fact 78 per cent of its students are female, as are 69 per cent of the university’s staff.

Next year, it will mark its 150th anniversary, having been established as the Edinburgh School of Cookery in 1875, with the main founders being Christian Guthrie Wright and Louisa Stevenson.

Sir Paul said: “When you look at the two amazing women who began the journey, it was about education opportunities for women and dealing with poor diet, which was mainly caused by poverty.

“I think that spirit is still here. Obviously we're a much bigger and sophisticated organisation, but I do feel that. When you talk about social justice, people here really mean it. They are not just trotting out a phrase.” When the opportunity to become its principal emerged, Sir Paul, who spent his student days working as a nursing auxiliary in a large psychiatric hospital, said there was “not a moment’s hesitation”, believing the university’s focus on health and wellbeing, and creative industries, “fitted me well”.

He also had some experience in the sector, having served on the court of Stirling University, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the council of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. It has not all been plain sailing at QMU for the former civil servant, however.

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The university was one of the first to hit the headlines in Scotland during a UK-wide marking and assessment boycott by the UCU union last year, after staff were threatened with 100 per cent pay deductions for participating.

"I think we retrieved that situation by negotiating and by talking,” he said. “I think the lesson you learn is, just talk to each other. It sounds ridiculously simple.” It is a lesson some would say could be better applied at his former place of work. Does he miss the Parliament?

"I'm not a politician, I don't have any alignment, but you do sometimes miss being in the thick of it,” he said.

“Then again, there are other days I'm so pleased I'm here and not there. And running Queen Margaret is a genuinely joyful thing, and that helps. If I wasn't doing anything I'd probably miss it a lot more.”

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