Principal's Update: October 2014

Principal's Update: October 2014

The latest update for the University community from Professor Sir Ian Diamond.


Rankings rises

We have had excellent news in the last few weeks of significant rises in the three major international university rankings, and I want at the outset to thank all colleagues for the commitment and teamwork which has given us this gratifying result.

The news that we have risen ten places to 178 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – against a backdrop of UK universities slipping against big investment in higher education in Asia – confirms our progress in the performance indicators used by THE and its partner Thomson Reuters: teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.

This completes a hat-trick of rises, following last month’s success in the QS World University Rankings which rated the University as 137th in the world, and the Leiden ranking of research strength which placed us 79th in the world – a rise of 12 places from last year and to position 14 in the UK. This Leiden score is fantastic news as it is based on entirely quantitative measures.

It is interesting that –  with exceptions including our medical school which is ranked top in Scotland  –  we have not made the same overall progress in some of the internal UK ratings, and we will be considering any actions around this in the next few months as we discuss aspects of our Strategic Plan. 

Court and Strategic Plan

Our recent Court meeting was particularly productive, encouraging and positive. I was able, along with Peter McGeorge, Phil Hannaford, Steve Logan and Theresa Merrick, to present a first draft of our priorities for the next few years. It was evident that the vision of the executive team for where we want to take this University is shared by our governors and our student representatives, and this commitment to a common goal provides the very best foundation to begin consulting on our next Strategic Plan. I stress that this is a wonderful opportunity for every member of the University family to help shape our priorities and objectives over the next five years and be part of our success.

Growing Value: Scotland Task Force

The Scottish research and development landscape exists in an incredibly competitive world, and only by identifying its strengths and weaknesses  –  as well as opportunities to expand – will we be able to ensure the success of Scottish research and the wider Scottish economy.

I was delighted to be asked to co-chair, with STV CEO Rob Woodward, a new task force to examine the challenges, opportunities and competitiveness for the future of the Scottish research base as a driver of Scottish industry at this crucial time following the independence referendum. The task force brings together experts from across industry and academia to identify and prioritise actions specific to Scotland to enhance the value of publicly-funded research and business-university collaboration. The task force is the initiative of the National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) and we will publish our final findings and recommendations in January 2016.

Professor Peter Morgan

As we draw nearer to the completion of the new building for the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health and the move of staff from the Bucksburn site, Professor Peter Morgan is stepping down from his role as Vice-Principal to focus on his research and to oversee the transition into the new building.  Peter was appointed a Vice-Principal as part of the merger agreement, and has been responsible for the smooth integration of Rowett staff and facilities into the University. He has recently played a major role in our Health and Safety agenda, chairing the University Health and Safety Committee, and I am personally grateful to him for the immense amount of work he has done in this area. As one of our most eminent scientists I am confident that his return to his research will have major benefits for the University going forward.

Start of term

Who can fail to notice that the campus looks busier than ever in the autumn sunshine?  We met our recruitment targets this September, and I want to mention just one school which has done particularly well. Our Law School has achieved a 30% increase in postgraduate taught students this year, which takes our cohort of PGT students in Law to almost 200, among which 40 different nationalities are represented. Law scored an impressive 95% student satisfaction rating in the latest 2014 National Student Survey.

Move-in weekend, Freshers’ Week, and the start of term provided excellent opportunities for myself and colleagues to engage with students, their parents and families, alumni, staff and supporters through a number of great events on campus.  Almost 200 parents and relatives of new students (many of whom were visiting campus for the first time) took the opportunity to tour both Cruickshank Botanic Garden during move-in weekend and then Aberdeen Sports Village and Aquatics Centre the following week. This had the added bonus of giving visitors the opportunity to cheer on their side during the first ever Student v Alumni Sports Day, which brought former students aged from 20 to 79 back on campus.  It is an important mission of the Development Trust’s Parent & Family Programme and the work of the Alumni Team to welcome into the Aberdeen family new students and their families right at the start of what we want to be a lifelong relationship with the University.

I also want to thank everyone who helped to ensure that the process of registering our students ran smoothly this September. While this time we were not able to provide all the online support that we had hoped would be possible, students were clearly very engaged in thinking about and selecting courses. The knowledge that has been gained from the first year of this more student-led approach will be very valuable in ensuring that we are able to provide them with the information they need to be able to make their course selections in the coming years. 

Student accommodation

For a number of reasons we found ourselves this September facing the challenge of managing a shortfall in bed capacity for students wanting to come into university accommodation. We normally plan for 65% of the new intake asking to come into halls, however this year the number shot up to over 75%, influenced we believe by an expensive rental market in Aberdeen. This is not a position we would have wished to be in, but the efforts of our accommodation team mean that students temporarily in a hotel have been found permanent University accommodation, and those who arrived on campus having made no accommodation arrangements are also being helped to find somewhere to live. I also want to thank the Student Association for its work in supporting students in temporary arrangements and helping them to fully engage with Freshers’ activities and settle into University life.

Students 4 Students (S4S)

We are growing our initiatives to help all new students quickly feel at home in the University community, and this month I would like to mention one in particular. The Students 4 Students peer mentoring initiative begun as a small CLSM pilot four years ago is now available to every first year student. I congratulate the small team whose commitment has made this possible. 

In a nutshell, the purpose of the scheme is to offer an extra level of support, but from a student viewpoint. For the first time this year organisers have enough student mentors to provide peer support for every first year who wants it, and so far this appears to be working well in parallel with the Personal Tutoring system. S4S mentors are recruited, trained, and then assigned incoming students for the duration of their first year studies. The mentors come from all subject areas, so the aim is to provide each first year with a mentor from their own or related subject area. All mentors are trained in active listening skills and confidentiality, and in our student support mechanisms. They can also apply for a Silver STAR Award, so this is a great help for their own development, in line with the principles of our curriculum reform and graduate attributes.

Sports partnerships

Colleagues may have seen the recent media coverage of the launch of the first Scottish BT Sport Academy, based at Hillhead sports facility. This partnership with Scottish Rugby and BT is great for us on several counts. It offers potential access to national training for the most talented young players in the University and local community, and – combined with the Aberdeen Sports Village and Aquatics Centre – it strengthens still further the fantastic opportunities we have at Aberdeen for developing the skills and dedication to excellence which are equally applicable to sports and to study.

We are also continuing to discuss options for partnership with Aberdeen Football Club, and working with the AFC Community Trust as part of our knowledge transfer and community engagement activities particularly with regard to nutrition and healthy lifestyle for people of all ages in our local communities. I was also pleased to meet last week with Mike Whittingham, Director of High Performance at Sportscotland and we discussed future partnerships for sport.

Head teachers' dinners

Every year the University hosts a series of Head Teachers’ Dinners which take place throughout Scotland. They offer a chance to update schools on our current developments and for our staff to hear issues facing secondary schools. The latest events took place in Glasgow and Aberdeen and were both extremely well attended, with head teachers representing both public and private sector. Further dinners are planned for March 2015. We value the engagement we have with schools in our community, and events like this are very valuable in developing partnership working.

Articulation with FE

Colleagues will be aware of changes in the Further Education sector over the last year or so, and we are currently working to update our existing articulation agreements to reflect this. The North East Scotland College was formed in November 2013 as a result of the merger between Aberdeen College and Banff & Buchan College. The new updated agreement with NESCol is near to completion and due to be signed in November. This is wide-ranging and covers subject areas from Accountancy through to Zoology.

Autumn events

As we get into autumn our event programme is getting into full swing. One rather special event which I want to mention is the inaugural Andrew Carnegie Lecture, fully booked tonight in our King’s Conference Centre, when we welcome His Excellency, Matthew Barzun, United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. We are very grateful to the Carnegie Corporation of New York for the generous donation which will enable the University to stage this prestigious annual event for the next ten years, and we are keen for suggestions from colleagues across the University for high-profile speakers in future years. I will chair a committee each year to consider suggested speakers, and details of the process for submitting ideas will be circulated shortly after this year’s event.

We also welcomed Nobel prize-winner physicist Douglas Osheroff from Stanford to deliver the latest RV Jones to a packed King’s Conference Centre, and our honorary graduate Richard Thompson delivered a very popular masterclass at Macrobert. We also marked the retirement of Professor James Grieve with public events looking at our fascination with forensic science and the ‘medical policeman’.

And finally… I’m delighted to hear that Project SEARCH which I spoke of in some detail in my last Update has now been named winner of the ‘Raising Achievement’ award at the annual Aberdeen City Council’s Children and Young People’s Services Award ceremony. Well done to everyone concerned!

Ian Diamond

Principal and Vice-Chancellor


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