A conscientious education

A conscientious education

Sir Gerry McCormac, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Stirling, describes the breadth of the school’s work, much of which being fully involved in aiding the most vulnerable of the population.


How would you assess Scotland’s strengths and weaknesses in the higher education sector? How performant and competitive is it in the global context? How does it compare internationally, and how do Scottish universities stand out?

There are 19 higher education institutions in Scotland, and they have a range of missions and sizes attached to them. Edinburgh and Glasgow are very large research-intensive universities, right through to some of the more specialist institutions, such as the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, probably one of the best in the world for music. We have the four ancients, which are Glasgow, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, and Aberdeen, and then the more modern universities, like ourselves in Stirling, founded in the late 1960s, making us just over 50 years old. Then there are what we call in the U.K. the post-92 universities, which were the former polytechnics. They would be less research-intensive, although they conduct very good research in some specific areas. That eclectic mix of diverse missions of the universities in Scotland really services very well, both the Scottish local population as well as the international student population. It provides that education, the links through to business, and has research activity going on that matches the needs of society in diverse ways.

We are also very globally active. If you were to take the University of Stirling, we have partnerships around the world, including in Sweden, France, the United States, Southeast Asia and China. This is remarkable, given that we are quite a small institution. With only a $196 million annual turnover, 1,700 staff and more than 17,000 students studying with us globally, our reach is way beyond the central belt of Scotland, and we have staff, connections and partnerships all around the world. You see, even a moderate-sized institution is creating connections that are hugely valuable for education, research and for economic development


Can you give us a quick overview of the university? What are some of the university’s flagship and more renowned academic and research programs? What is its position in the Scottish landscape?

If we start on the research side and the value proposition of Stirling in terms of our expertise, we are very strong in aquaculture. Within the Scottish food and drink sector, fish farming, of course, is a massive and growing industry, where farmed fish across the world exceed the natural catch from our oceans. Because of the importance of fish farming as a food source, it brings with it a unique set of problems. For example, how to feed them and how to make sure that there are no lice or contamination. The research we do is about how to produce aquatic food safely and sustainably.

Another specialism is dementia and research into better ageing, where we do a huge amount of work, for example, on dementia-friendly homes, in which our findings have been adopted around the world. Finally, regarding the Scottish International Environment Center, the SIEC, funded through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal, we are basically the regional center for driving a net-zero regional economy in Scotland in terms of carbon. Specifically, we do a lot around the process of studying water resources locally and applying it globally. Those are just some of the big research themes we work on.

In terms of our value proposition, we have a mantra which is, “Our University is a place where ability is valued, not background.” We are about transforming young people through the education process, giving them the skills, expertise and life opportunities to make a difference in the world. Additionally, we have a very strong sporting pedigree; we are Scotland’s University for Sporting Excellence. In the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Scotland took 11 medals and five of them, including two gold, were won in the swimming pool by students from this university! In the recent Winter Games in Beijing, we brought home gold medals for curling—their success seems to have  really fired people up this year! We are also consistently the European, U.K. and Scottish men’s and women’s golf champions and play in the United States against the Ivy League schools every year. We are also very strong in soccer and tennis and host the Scottish National Tennis Centre for performance tennis.  Sir Andy Murray practiced on these courts as a youngster, growing up just a couple of miles from here.


How instrumental is the University of Stirling’s research input in tackling global challenges such as sustainability and the climate crisis?

We play a massive role there. Just to mention one, we have been involved in the City Region Deal, which is a $280 million investment in the Stirling and Clackmannanshire region in central Scotland. In fact, the university was pivotal in that coming here. We are the catalyst for a lot of the activity coming on stream through the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal. Both the Scottish government and the Westminster government contribute to it, bringing private sector involvement. This includes areas such as aquaculture, and environmental research with British Telecom. Ikea is also involved in some of the research projects that we are doing to help research household products for the elderly. For instance, there is work being done on how to make sure that people with dementia access products that are fit for purpose.


How are you working to narrow the gap between the corporate industrial world and the research world of the university?

Scotland is rather dominated by SMEs. It can be difficult to persuade them sometimes that there is benefit in linking through research activity and what the immediate benefits are. Therefore, we put a lot of time and energy into facilitating that, to make it as easy as possible, and as near to market for them when it comes to a product or whatever they are producing. A lot of the work that we do in social sciences around ageing, for example, as I just mentioned, is about what makes life easier for caretakers of people with dementia. For example, what is the architecture of a home that keeps an elderly person with dementia safe and able to have a good quality of life? That can come down to simple things like finding the bathroom, color coding the doors, and having lighting that comes on at appropriate times so that they are not confused by daylight, darkness and the changing seasons.

We also are involved in integrating young people with support for older people. In the past, of course, extended families would have lived together. As people aged, the younger members of the family were there to help and support the older members of the family, while older members were there to look after the children. With how we live our lives now, that tends to happen less and less. Some of the research is about how to bring what once existed into the current period and have that mix of generations. We are trying to create a thing called an intergenerational home so that, for example, students here, instead of living in halls just with other students, might live with older people. Then they become that extended family and benefit from the pleasant experience and, perhaps, the cost benefits of living with older people and vice versa. We look at research and modifications to social policy that can work for that.


Tell us a bit more about your internationalization strategy. How is the university working to expand its international reach, to craft new partnerships and collaborations with its peers, and to develop additional student exchange programs?

Internationalization is a key part of what we do, and we have about 120 different nationalities at the university. Sometimes it is just one or two people and other times larger cohorts. There is a large representation of Chinese, Indian and Pakistani, students from African nations, and from the United States. Until Brexit, of course, we had many European students coming because it was tuition free here in Scotland for EU students. That has dropped to about half now. We also have a number of overseas teaching partnerships, including with institutions in Singapore, the UAE and China, whereby our flying faculty teach in-country, or those international students spend one or two years on our campus as part of their degree. We do things at the university like having international weeks for different groupings, celebrate different foods, and hold cultural events, such as Chinese New Year. This is really important to us because the mixing of the different nationalities and cultures is an education in itself. That was the case with the Erasmus program and hopefully we will be able to continue student exchanges through the new Turing program.

A commitment in the Scottish Government’s manifesto, is the desire to put in place an international mobility program which would be funded separately and would be in addition to Turing. There are a few reasons we need to do that. Students being educated together from different nationalities and cultural experiences works really well. Secondly, and sadly, it is costly to the government. While our politicians say they fund higher education appropriately, they just do not do it appropriately in Scotland: the unit of resource per student is too low. International students and the resource they bring, frankly, help finance universities. None of us wants that to be the case, but I’m afraid that is a reality for us. We welcome international students as having different nationalities and cultures on campus and bringing students from Scotland together with students from all over the world is life-enhancing, life changing in many instances, but, in this case, it also helps the finances.

In terms of research, it is not an activity that takes place in any one country, especially in big research fields. There are laboratories and research groupings around the world and we build partnerships with them. Stirling, for example, has just recently joined the YERUN, which is the Young European Research University Network, and we do a range of things with them in terms of staff exchange, research project exchanges, and a host of things you would expect from a research-intensive university. Internationalization is critical, from a student recruitment perspective, for cultural exchange, educating young people from around the world together, for student mobility, with students going outside of Scotland and working. Networks such as YERUN, where we are part of a grouping of universities with common values and objectives in terms of international partnerships, are incredibly important in this regard.


How do you assess the impact of Brexit on Scotland’s higher education and research landscape, and how are you working to make up for it at Stirling?

Actually, we have been feeling the impact of Brexit for six years. From our point of view, we had many members of staff from different European countries who felt that the U.K. was becoming a cold place for other Europeans. This feeling of rejection led to their decision to move back home and raise their families in their countries. I had letters from staff who left and said it was because of Brexit. They did not see a future for themselves as academics in the U.K.

Then, of course, there was the whole right-to-remain, visa status changes, and some of the difficulties around that, which were another major negative in terms of Brexit. At the time, I lobbied as best I could to stay in the European Union. I am fortunate because if you come from Northern Ireland, you are entitled to have an Irish passport, which gives me EU citizen rights. The sad thing about people in Scotland is, for the many who did not want to leave the European Union, they had that right withdrawn from them unilaterally as a consequence of Brexit.

The other major area was the European Research Council, the ERC, and the Horizon Europe program. The immediate effect was that EU partners who had worked and applied for research grants with U.K. universities and Scottish universities slowly began to not really want to partner to the same extent because of the complications associated with Brexit, for example, the U.K. association with Horizon Europe. We were given some guarantees and undertakings by the government that they would continue to fund the U.K. partner if a Horizon Europe grant was successful. Then we had an indication about a year ago from the U.K. Government that we would have a full association with Horizon Europe. However, that has got caught up in the ongoing saga of the Northern Ireland Protocol—the European Union does not want to deal with the matter of research association until the protocol issue in Northern Ireland is resolved. Essentially, there is peripheral damage associated with other political lines on university activity and university research.

Overall, Brexit has been a huge negative for higher education in Scotland and in the U.K., in my opinion. But we have to be pragmatic and find ways to operate the system as best we can. For example, we joined YERUN post-Brexit. That is a tangible way to keep the links between other European institutions and research going. If you look around at Glasgow and the other big universities in Scotland, they all have global and European networks to which they are connected. That is the thing about universities, particularly universities in Scotland, but I would say across the whole of the U.K.—we do not see boundaries associated with countries. For us, increasing knowledge and educating people is a global activity. We know we can help humanity and civilization to stay connected and civilized, encourage mobility, learn about each other, and respect each other. All those things are so profoundly important.


Do you have any final comments for the readers of Newsweek magazine?

I would take it beyond Stirling and talk about all of Scotland. If you want to come to study in a country that has a set of values that are consistent with a real quality of life and intellectual endeavor, a place that cares about individuals, then consider Scotland. It is utterly fantastic here. I say that as someone who has come and lived here for 12 years. It is hard to put into words. You need to come to Scotland and experience it rather than just seeing the words on a page, because it is only then that you will feel the reality of what I am trying to describe.