I’m delighted to have been asked to write a blog about my recent installation as Principal and Vice-Chancellor at the University of Aberdeen and reflect on what has been a busy start to the year. Installation ceremonies are very special occasions for universities. I was delighted that we welcomed more than 500 guests to the event at Elphinstone Hall on 16 January 2019.
It is truly an honour to be installed and it was great to have our Chancellor, the Duchess of Rothesay, on campus to preside over the ceremony. The feedback I’ve received from guests is that it was a fantastic day which showcased the best of the University to a large audience.
A significant amount of planning goes in to events like installation, both in Old Aberdeen and Foresterhill where the Duchess later met staff and students. It was a great example of what can be achieved for the University when a wide range of teams work together.
The ceremony was a great event which featured wonderful music and we also recognised work and achievements which have helped the University and our local community. The day was made even more special as my family were able to attend to share and enjoy the experience.
For me this has been a journey home to the city where I was born, and to the north-east origins of my parents and grandparents. I started my education not far from the University at King Street Primary School. After being a student here I was fortunate to develop an academic career that involved international research collaborations in places such as the USA and Hong Kong, little thinking that the pinnacle of my career would be in a place only half a mile from where I grew up.
I’m pleased to have taken up this post at a time when the quality of the University’s health research has been recognised with the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education. This is awarded just once every two years for truly exceptional academic achievement. We also celebrated success in the autumn when we were named as Scottish University of the Year 2019 by The Sunday Times and were ranked 158th in the world by the Times Higher, the most prestigious of the global rankings.
And more importantly, it’s a huge privilege to have been appointed as Principal of this magnificent institution, and to have the responsibility of building on the work of my predecessors in this role. My 48 predecessors. Not many Chief Executives or Head Teachers – and being Principal is a bit like a combination of these roles – are responsible for building on the achievements of so many prior incumbents. This is just one of many signals of the significance of the role to the University and the wider community.
I have a deep connection with the university’s foundational purpose and the installation ceremony was an important moment to highlight the values upon which the University was founded. Following permission from Pope Alexander VI through a Papal Bull, Bishop William Elphinstone established King’s College in 1495, making us the third oldest University in Scotland and the fifth oldest in the UK.
Bishop Elphinstone’s stated intention was to found a University which would be open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others. This foundational purpose is just as relevant today as it was more than 500 years ago. It will continue to be our guiding light in the years ahead.
So, how are we open to all? We’re delighted that we recruit students from all parts of Scotland, and we welcome a significant proportion of our students from beyond Scotland. One of the biggest changes in the University while I’ve been away has been the wonderful growth in the number of European students and staff. This builds on our tradition of being an ancient European – as well as Scottish and British – University. We attract thousands of international students to Aberdeen, and this year alone 130 nationalities are represented across our staff and student communities.
However, the vagaries of UK politics and Brexit mean that one of our greatest achievements may yet turn into our biggest challenge. It’s crucial to the continued achievement of our foundational purpose that we can recruit the best staff and students from across the world. Also, we are determined to find ways to maintain and support our highly valued community of European staff and students. This is vital not only for our own success but also for the cultural diversity and economic prosperity of the north-east.
Looking beyond Europe at our growing global profile, I’m confident Bishop Elphinstone didn’t envisage that the university would eventually be ‘open to all’ by having a campus in the Middle East. We are building on our links in Qatar with the Al-Faleh Group for Educational and Academic Services to expand our Doha campus.
I had the pleasure of visiting our Qatar campus in January to meet with staff and students and hear about work they have been doing. The facilities in Qatar are very impressive. Work has just started on a new campus which will increase our capacity to welcome even more students on to our programmes. I’m very excited about this project as it offers the University new opportunities for growth as well as build a strong reputation for excellence in the Middle East.
Turning to our home student population, open to all also means a strong commitment to widening access to higher education. I recently announced a target to double our intake of students from disadvantaged areas in Scotland by September 2019. We can only achieve this though collaboration with our partners in schools and further education. We are all working together to benefit people in the local community who may not otherwise have considered a university education.
Widening access connects directly to the final part of our foundational purpose. The University exists to work in the service of others. At its origin, the institution was established to meet the needs of the people of the north-east for education that would train doctors, lawyers and priests. Today the ‘education for the professions’ at the University of Aberdeen also extends to teachers, engineers, dentists, accountants and computers scientists, to name just a few.
We also work in the cultural service of others, through our education and research in fields such as Doric and Music. We act strongly in the economic service of the north-east through our employment of 3,000 staff, the recruitment of 14,000 students to the local area, and through our collaborations with many public and private organisations.
Our ability to work in the service of others will be strengthened significantly in the coming years. In a few months we will launch a major recruitment campaign for 50 extra academic posts. We have literally cleared the ground to commence work on a new £40m Science Teaching Hub. We also have plans in place to invest in our teaching estate, to ensure that we meet the needs and expectations of contemporary students.
This combination of modern teaching facilities in traditional buildings is symbolic of what the University requires to maintain its success. Proud of our past, but focused on the future and in tune with the contemporary values and aspirations of our students and external partners.
I’m sure it’s going to be a busy year ahead and I look forward to serving the interests of the University in the role of Principal. Working with the whole University community to ensure that we remain open to all, dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others in Aberdeen, the north-east and the wider world.