Annual Review 2015/16

Reflecting on 15 years

As Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea prepares to demit office, we look back at the University’s achievements across a range of themes since he became Principal in October 2002.

After 15 years leading the University, Professor O’Shea leaves us in a much stronger place. Research performance is better than ever, student demand at home and abroad continues to grow, and our position in all the global rankings places the University among the world’s best. It is no surprise, given the Principal’s background as a computer scientist, that the University has embraced the opportunities of new technologies as few others have.

Edinburgh has built an extraordinary reach to learners worldwide through innovative online learning at scale. As a world leader in data science and its applications, it is opening up new fields of research and teaching, industry engagement and economic impact. With that, Professor O’Shea’s legacy is an extraordinarily strong platform for meeting the challenges of the future.

Widening participation

The University was one of the first in the UK to introduce contextual admissions, in 2004, recognising that school-leaving qualifications are not necessarily the best way of assessing academic potential.

Among many successful widening participation initiatives resourced during the period are Pathways to the Professions, supporting state school students interested in applying for architecture, medicine, law or veterinary medicine; and LEAPS: Lothians’ Equal Access Programme for Schools. The University has one of the most generous bursary packages in the UK.

Prize-winning staff

Professor Peter Higgs
Professor O’Shea has made it a hallmark of his tenure to recognise outstanding performance in both students and staff. The Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme has been running since 2007, offering grants to staff for projects that enhance teaching, learning or assessment, and in 2008 he launched the Principal’s Medals, awards that celebrate exceptional service.

The University has consistently attracted some of the world’s most successful researchers, including Emeritus Professor Peter Higgs, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Honorary Professor Sir Michael Atiyah, winner of the 2004 Abel Prize for Mathematics.


Harald Haas Pure LiFi Annual Review 2015_16
Under Professor O’Shea’s guidance, the University has led the sector in its support for student and staff entrepreneurs through Edinburgh Research & Innovation. There has been a stream of globally significant spin-outs from the University, from Wolfson Microelectronics in 2003, to PureLiFi in 2012. Launch.Ed was established in 2006 to support students with business ideas, and in 2011 it received the Higher Education Innovation award from EducationInvestor.

Between 2002 and 2016, nearly 400 companies were formed with the support of the University. This included nearly 250 student start-ups and 55 companies formed by external parties given access to University facilities.

Digital learning

Young woman using laptop
The University has been a consistent pioneer of digital learning. In 2005 we launched our first online distance learning programme, the postgraduate LLM degree from the School of Law. Edinburgh now has more than 65 postgraduate degree programmes offered by online distance learning, and in 2013 a suite of online degrees in medicine, developed with the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, won the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education.

In 2012 the University became the first UK institution to offer Massive Open Online Courses, and to date more than 2 million people have joined our MOOCs.


Sir Chris Hoy in open top bus
Sporting success has been a key part of the University’s identity over the past 15 years. The University has consistently achieved a top six placing in the British Universities and Colleges Sport rankings, and Edinburgh students and alumni are among the world’s most decorated athletes. The Pleasance complex has benefited from substantial investment during the period, including a £4.8 million refurbishment of its gyms in 2010.

The University aims to make the benefits of physical activity accessible by all students, through initiatives such as Healthy University and intra-mural competitions.


The Noreen and Kenneth Murray Library
Over the past 15 years the University has invested heavily in its physical estate. Major developments over the period include the new Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Sciences at Easter Bush, the BioQuarter at Little France, the Noreen and Kenneth Murray Library at King’s Buildings, and the Potterow complex including the Informatics Forum.

Refurbishments include the McEwan Hall, St Cecilia’s Hall, the School of Law in Old College and the award-winning transformation of the Old High School into the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation. The University has also created a low-carbon combined heat and power network that provides the majority of its energy needs.

Economic impact

Mini robot
Under Professor O’Shea’s leadership, the University, the third largest employer in the Edinburgh, has become a major contributor to the economy. In the latest BiGGAR report, covering the year 2013/14, the University made an economic contribution of £1.2 billion to Edinburgh, more than £3 billion to the UK economy, and nearly £5 billion to the wider global economy.

The economic impacts of the University include the location of technology companies in Edinburgh to be near the talent pool generated by the School of Informatics. Nearly one fifth of Edinburgh Airport’s long-haul traffic is related to education.

Social responsibility and sustainability

Fairtrade flag
Under Professor O’Shea’s direction, the University has influenced the global sustainability agenda, for example through our scientists’ contribution to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while also changing our own practices, for example by becoming the first Scottish university to attain Fairtrade status, in 2004.

The Sustainability Awards were launched in 2010, as was the University’s Climate Action Plan. In 2013 we established the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability, and Edinburgh became the first university in Europe to sign the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. The University’s record of achieving Athena Swan awards reflects our sector-leading work on gender equality.


International students at a lecture
The international outlook of the University has strengthened enormously during this period. Our International Strategy, ‘Edinburgh Global’, was launched in 2010, setting down the University’s intention to enhance its position globally.Today 43 per cent of our students – more than 16,000 – are from outside the UK, as are 28 per cent of our staff.

The University established four Global Academies in 2011, networks of experts across the University and other international institutions, to pursue multidisciplinary responses to challenging global issues. The University has established four Global Offices, for China and Asia, Latin America, India and North America.


Usher Hall light projection
The University’s relationship with Edinburgh’s festivals has greatly strengthened under Professor O’Shea’s leadership. We are the largest venue host for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and our staff and students stage and perform at a long list of Fringe events. Professor O’Shea has served as Chair of Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society since 2012.

The University is also heavily involved in Edinburgh’s other major festivals: for example, our expertise in design informatics led to the Edinburgh International Festival’s spectacular opening event in 2015, the Harmonium Project, and our prominent role in the Science Festival includes hosting family events at the National Museum of Scotland.