Alumni Services

Principal reflects on time in office

MOOCs, mergers and Mandarin Burns suppers - Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea is demitting office after 15 years. We invited him to reflect on his time at Edinburgh.

Timothy O'Shea

What have been your most important achievements during your time in office?

I would say the very much increased internationalisation of the staff and student body, taking leadership in eLearning via MOOCs and online masters courses, quadrupling our research income, and the construction of attractive new buildings like the Informatics Forum and the vet school. Also, the negotiation of three very important strategic mergers – with Edinburgh College of Art, with the Roslin Institute, and with the Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine. And the restoring and renovating of several of our iconic buildings for the University and the City, such as McEwan Hall and St Cecilia's Hall.

What have been your biggest challenges?

I think simultaneously dealing with Westminster and Holyrood governments, finding ways of supporting broad international interdisciplinary endeavours – but the five global academies are leading the way here – and establishing a greater sense of community in such a large, physically dispersed body. Reducing car parking to make the Old Quad and Moray House courtyard more beautiful again was a challenge too, but very rewarding.

What will you miss most about the University?

Many, many things about the people and the job – especially the banter with our friendly servitors, and especially walking into the Old Quad at dawn.

What plans have you got for when you leave?

I plan to grow vegetables and read art history books, and I would like to learn to sing.

There are a lot of challenges facing the higher education sector – what are your hopes for the University in the future?

I feel sure the University will continue to grow, flourish and make the world a better place.

Do you envisage yourself returning for visits?

Yes, indeed – for concerts, exhibitions and as an emeritus professor of digital education in the Schools of Education and Informatics.

What advice would you have for your successor?

I would say trust the students and staff to do their very best, and think strategically for the long term, the next decade and the next 50 years.

What are your fondest or funniest memories at the University?

Going up Arthur’s Seat at dawn on Norwegian National Day with the students from Norway and watching them sing their anthem, drink aquavit and eat herring. Also when we had a combined Chinese New Year and Burns night in the Playfair Library – dim sum and haggis, kilts and silk jackets. Burns poems in Mandarin, whisky and green tea and wild reeling.

I feel sure the University will continue to grow, flourish and make the world a better place.

Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea
Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea portrait by Victoria Crowe
Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea by Victoria Crowe


As part of the normal arrangements for a Principal demitting office, a portrait was commissioned to formally mark Sir Tim’s time at the University. The portrait by Victoria Crowe is a favourite of his, and normally resides outside his office if not being exhibited elsewhere. There is also a full-size copy of it in the Informatics Forum.

Sir Tim is a passionate champion and patron of fine art, and this painting, he says, vividly shows the dynamic between his reckless and creative side and his pedantic academic streak. He jokingly points out that the University traditionally offers the portrait to the Principal, who traditionally politely declines, but that this has not been the case for him, although he would of course defer to tradition – probably.

Related links

The Principal's Office