All female team takes over at the helm of UHI Orkney

For the first time in the history of UHI Orkney, there’s an all-female leadership team at the helm.

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From left to right: Pauline Black, Professor Seonaidh McDonald and Claire Kemp

New Principal, Professor Seonaidh McDonald and Deputy Principal, Pauline Black, took up their roles in April 2024, joining Claire Kemp, an established Deputy Principal at the facility since 2021.

Seonaidh (pronounced Shona) has lifelong links with Orkney and feels as though she’s “coming home”.

Although born and brought up in Aberdeen, she spent family holidays on Stronsay – the North Isle where she eventually went on to meet her husband.

“We continued the tradition of bringing our family back every year to Stronsay and our boys love it too,” Seonaidh said. "I have dreamed all my life of working in Orkney and although it's going to be a year of transition for me and my family, I just couldn't be happier. I feel like I have come home in so many ways.”

Having this deep-rooted connection gives the principal a better understanding of the role of the college in the community and how that has changed and evolved over the years.

Seonaidh continued: “It also gives me insight into ways to approach problems and get things done here. Living on the North Isles is great training in never underestimating the complexity and depth of connections between folk and being aware of the nested needs of community, family and individuals."

“In Orkney, there are always creative solutions to be found through finding connections and shared practices. There is definitely an Orkney way to go about things and I am hoping that my small insight into that will help me to help the college thrive. For instance, I know that we are UHI Orkney and we're proud of that, but we will always be 'the college'.”

Seonaidh comes to UHI Orkney from Innovate UK - the UK's innovation agency, funding research and innovation for industry - and has a 30-year background in academia researching (sustainability) and teaching (business strategy and research methods) in several different UK universities.

She’s been in the post since the start of April and is spending time getting to know the team and finding out how best she can offer support to them to continue to see the facility, and those within it, excel.

“I know that the college is based on a long tradition of serving the community, our businesses and our young people. That's a tradition I am keen to maintain, and to strengthen."

“The new stakeholder group are a part of that, and I am really looking forward to working with all of them. I know they are ready to keep us relevant and proactive and help me understand how best we can serve.”

Seonaidh recognises the budgetary and recruitment challenges facing many sectors in Orkney and away.

“This is a difficult time for the whole education sector and, like every other college and university, UHI Orkney has less funding and more demands than ever on the time and energy of the staff,” she said.

“I will be striving to find creative and resourceful ways forward despite all the challenges in the sector and doing all of that while helping all our staff and students to thrive personally. My personal goal is to build staff wellbeing into everything we do.”

She is aware of the particular difficulties being felt within some local industries struggling to recruit.

“The college needs to be a well-trodden bridge between schools and local employers. We have had success in this in the past and it is something we would like to do more of in the future. Being part of the ‘Orkney offer’ ensuring a positive destination and outcome for every young person is part of that and our senior phase student numbers have been growing each year.”

UHI Orkney supports over 200 members of staff and more than 1,250 full and part-time students. In addition, there are short courses and other business engagement.

The facility is an academic partner within the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), offering an extensive array of educational opportunities tailored to individuals at every stage of their learning journey. It works closely with the schools in Orkney to support the curriculum for excellence, providing a range of skills for work courses that allow young people to explore and work towards vocational qualifications.

There aren’t many places in the world where you can study subjects as varied as agriculture, archaeology, business, construction, fine art, hairdressing, primary teaching and Viking studies and the staff have produced world leading and internationally recognised research in a number of areas – agronomy, archaeology and northern studies.

Seonaidh is delighted to have the support of two Deputy Principals in Pauline and Claire.

Pauline has only been in post for a few weeks and explains what caught her eye about relocating to Orkney.

“I have been here on holiday a few times with my husband, and we fell in love with the place. Over the years we had spoken often about how amazing it would be if we could move to Orkney, but I didn't really think it would be possible.”

“I had been looking for a new post, I was ready for a new challenge and was open to relocation. I thought the job sounded really interesting and it spoke to a lot of my personal interests - the sense of community came through strongly; I was really impressed by the Orkney Islands Council values - they were really aligned with my own - people, unity, trust, ownership and creativity. I loved the fact that folks can study all levels from short courses to PhDs, it sounded really inclusive.”

Pauline has a distinctly musical background, and she is looking forward to immersing herself in Orkney’s rich, traditional musical heritage.

“I was a senior lecturer in music education at the University of Aberdeen and former head of music and I also spent one day per week working on freelance projects, for example I ran a community jazz big band, a creative orchestra and did many short-term projects like ukes factor."

“At the University of Aberdeen, a large part of my role was in teacher education and also managing music performance and student engagement. I'm hoping that I can connect with more people and continue to build on the amazing musical happenings here."

“I have lots of musician friends from all over the UK who want to add Orkney on to their tour schedules now. I'm looking forward to events such as the St Magnus Festival and I hope I can help share Orcadian music happenings with my networks across the UK. There is such a lot to celebrate here. My husband is a musician too, so we can't wait to get involved more on the local scene and play some music.”

For now, she is getting to grips with the workings of the college.

"I've met amazing new colleagues so far and I'm looking forward to learning lots more from them. I'm really interested in learning and teaching, and I look forward to delving into what that looks like for students in Orkney across all the different subject areas."

“For now, it’s about meeting with people, listening, writing lots of things down and asking a lot of questions – building relationships really.”

“Seonaidh has a real strong emphasis on staff wellbeing, which I fully support, and it works both ways – we will all look out for each other as that has never been more important than post Covid.”

Pauline and her husband are enjoying what the Orkney countryside has to offer with their two beagles.

Claire is delighted to have a senior leadership team in place and looking forward to what the future holds.

She said: “It’s not an easy time for any college, and UHI Orkney is no different, but I am thrilled to have my new colleagues in post that I already have absolute faith in.”

Chair of the UHI Orkney stakeholder group, Harvey Johnston, said: “I am delighted to see senior management at the college is up to strength which will provide leadership and stability at this challenging time. I very much look forward to working with the new team.”

James Wylie, Corporate Director of Education, Leisure and Housing at Orkney Islands Council said: “UHI Orkney has been nurtured into a strong educational institution that makes a major contribution to tertiary education in the Orkney community and places it on the national and world stage.”

“An exciting new period lies ahead, and we look forward to working together with Seonaidh, Pauline, Claire and the rest of the team to continue to go from strength to strength and further build and shape a college suited to the sustainability of Orkney, playing a major role in the Orkney offer for our learners and continuing to lead very high calibre research."