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A spring message to alumni from the Principal

A special message for all alumni of the University of Edinburgh from Professor Peter Mathieson, Principal and Vice-Chancellor.

Principal Peter Mathieson

Greetings to you all and my best wishes to you and to your loved ones as we continue to navigate a world that has been turned upside-down by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Last week we passed the one year mark since the first pandemic lockdown started in the UK and many of us observed a one minute’s silence on 23rd March to pay our respects to those we have lost. As we look forward, there is genuine cause for optimism now with the roll-out of vaccination programmes. Our University has made massive contributions to the local and global response to the pandemic: our staff making fantastic efforts despite challenging circumstances to continue to deliver education to our superb students; our researchers leading work on disease susceptibility, treatments, effectiveness of vaccines and many more aspects. Many of you, our alumni, will also have contributed to the response worldwide, and continue to do so, in health services, in government, in your local communities or in a multitude of other ways essential to keeping society functioning. We have been truly inspired by the stories we have heard from around the world of the contributions you have made.

I know that many of you have played an important part in supporting the University community and especially our students - something which has been even more meaningful over the past year. Thank you. Many of our interactions, activities and events were moved successfully online and even enhanced through virtual engagement.  Just one example of this is our Insights programme which helps students who may have faced barriers accessing university develop the confidence, skills and connections to consider a range of careers through introductions to Edinburgh alumni. When the planned programme was suspended due to the pandemic, an alternative Insights Online programme was developed and has now involved more than 220 students interacting with 65 alumni, the first time we have brought together global alumni volunteers from across the UK, Europe, North America and Asia in support of our students. We will continue with this approach even once Insights is back up and running in person.

While our students have had a seriously disrupted experience, student behaviour has in general been very good and we have worked hard to support our students during a very challenging time. Maintaining a sense of community and belonging has been particularly difficult during the pandemic: we know how important this is and we continue to strive for improvements. There have been countless examples of innovation, inventiveness and flexibility. I am aware that many local alumni answered the call to volunteer to support students who were feeling isolated over the winter break by meeting up for an outdoor activity in Edinburgh. This was a wonderful and meaningful gesture and I know from the feedback it was appreciated enormously by our students.

My thanks on behalf of the University go to all members of the Edinburgh community for their many contributions. We do not underestimate the many personal and professional challenges that everyone has navigated in the past year: these make the support shared and achievements even more remarkable.

The challenges are far from over wherever we are in the world. For those of us in Edinburgh, we are doing our best to plan ahead effectively despite the continuing uncertainties. We are aware of the anxiety we all feel as we come out of lockdown: issues of health and safety; equality, diversity and inclusion; estates issues as we return to campus; home and hybrid working all remain priorities for us and are prominent in all aspects of our planning. We are in frequent discussions with our staff, students, other universities and with both governments, as well as organisations all around the world, with whom we share information in the interests of developing the best possible response.

There are some very exciting change projects underway as part of the University’s renewal: whilst we are already a great university, we can be even greater. Curriculum transformation, improvements in student and staff experience, digital strategy, growing research together: all of these require detailed staff and student engagement, tough decisions about prioritisation of time and money, detailed planning, progress assessment and regular review. On all these agendas, we are working with alumni and wider partners. We firmly believe that Strategy 2030, our University strategy for the next decade, remains as relevant as ever: external events have not altered our values, aims, vision and goals, even if timescales and methodologies might change.

We must never forget that the University of Edinburgh is one of the leading universities in the world (recently re-evidenced for us by the latest edition of the QS rankings showing us maintaining our position at number 20 in the world) and that we are privileged to be a part of one of the world’s great cities. Our contributions to the city and the region are accelerating, for example with the Data Driven Innovation programme under our ‘City Deal’ underpinning the creation of new jobs (over 1,000 new jobs, 52 high-growth new companies), providing data science education to tens of thousands of people, attracting hundreds of millions of pounds of inward investment into Scotland. ‘City Deal’ set some very ambitious targets: two years into the ten year programme we are exceeding them, despite the pandemic. Our international links are as strong as ever: despite the pandemic we have entered new agreements on distant continents, contributed actively to international alliances and continued to attract talented students and staff from all over the world. Application numbers for the next academic year are buoyant.

Elements of the next phase of our lives are likely to include continued emphasis on public health precautions: hand-washing, good ventilation, minimising crowding as much as possible; it is likely that face coverings, one-way systems and other measures are also likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. Scottish Government is supporting us in providing Covid testing to staff and students and we also have our own very promising in-house approach to large-scale testing which has completed a successful pilot and has just received research funding to scale-up.

While it may be a little longer before we can fully return to some of the events and activities we all enjoyed so much before the pandemic, on campus and internationally, we very much look forward to continuing to bring alumni, students and staff together in new and exciting ways in the meantime. Celebrating the shared values of our Edinburgh community remains a priority and Being Edinburgh, our alumni award, exemplifies this. I was delighted to meet with the 2020 Award winner - alumnus Dr Nanshan Zhong, one of the leading figures in China’s response to COVID-19 - at the first Edinburgh Futures Conversation recently on global health, where we convened a unique discussion between Dr Zhong and Dr Tony Fauci, chief medical advisor to successive administrations in the US. Many of you were in attendance that day; if not, you might like to view a recording here. We received 87 nominations for the 2021 Being Edinburgh award, alumni demonstrating the strength, talent and resilience that have been evident in even the most challenging times, and are very much looking forward to announcing the winner in two weeks’ time.  

My sincere thanks to you all for being part of our community. As we look to an admittedly still uncertain short-term and medium-term future, I hope you agree you can be proud of your university and will continue to support us in making the place, and the impact it has, even stronger.

With my best wishes,

Peter

Professor Peter Mathieson

Principal and Vice-Chancellor