Since I returned to Aberdeen to take up my role as Principal I have worked to play my part in strengthening links between the University and our local institutions, meeting with civic and political leaders, industry figures, and education partners as we aim to enhance our existing partnerships for the benefit of the communities we serve.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this work has been to start a programme of visits to schools across the north-east, meeting with head teachers and key staff and seeing for myself the talent and potential of pupils in our local communities, some of whom may be considering a future in higher education.
These visits hold a particular resonance for me, as I remember my time as a pupil at King Street Primary School and how distant a university education seemed to most of us who grew up in working class backgrounds.
Ultimately, my pathway to university was relatively straightforward, but I am conscious that for many of our young people this might not be the case. Indeed, for school pupils in disadvantaged circumstances, higher education might represent a challenge that is at best daunting, or at worst seems unachievable.
Since returning to the University I have been struck by the foresight of Bishop Elphinstone, who on founding King’s College in 1495 stated his ambition ‘to found a university which would be open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others’.
While now centuries-old, Bishop Elphinstone’s vision remains just as relevant today, and is a driving force behind our activities to promote inclusion and encourage participation in higher education.
It is with this in mind that I was delighted to announce that the University will aim to double the number of full-time Scottish degree students we recruit from SIMD20 areas, as part of our commitment to improve access to higher education.
We made our pledge to recruit 10 per cent of Scottish students from the 20 per cent most deprived areas in Scotland during a visit to the University by Richard Lochhead, Scotland’s Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science.
I was pleased to discuss with him the unique challenges we face in terms of recruiting students from SIMD20 backgrounds, in large part due to the very low proportion of postcode areas classified as such in the north-east.
Nonetheless, the introduction of this ambitious target provides new impetus to our extensive widening access activities, which I consider to be a priority area for the University.
Our Widening Access and Articulation teams are already working with local schools through initiatives such as Access Aberdeen and REACH Aberdeen, two successful programmes that offer pupils from widening access backgrounds advice on pathways to higher education.
Our work also includes agreements with North East Scotland College and other Scottish colleges to extend the number of articulation pathways into University from either an HNC or HND programme.
Furthermore, I was delighted to launch of the Principal’s Award of Excellence in the company of local head teachers at an event held at the University recently. Awarded annually to one pupil at the National 5 Level and one pupil at the Higher level, the intention of the award is to recognise excellent overall academic potential by a pupil planning to attend university.
It is through initiatives like this that we aim to encourage engagement from pupils with aspirations to attend university, no matter their background or individual circumstances. Likewise, our commitment to double the number of SIMD20 students coming here is another important expression of our commitment towards greater inclusion.
These efforts will continue as we seek to enhance our approach to widening access and ensure - just as Bishop Elphinstone envisaged - that a University of Aberdeen education is open to all.