Published: 09/09/2017 13:00 - Updated: 08/09/2017 11:24

New college boss remains optimistic despite Brexit 'tragedy'

Written byDonna MacAllister


Chris O'Neil
Professor Chris O'Neil, the new principal and chief executive of Inverness College UHI.

THE new principal and chief executive of Inverness College UHI has described the UK’s decision to leave the EU as "a tragedy".

Professor Chris O’Neil believes that too many Brexiteers voted "without clarity" and said the cloud of uncertainty about the nature of the final Brexit deal meant he still did not know what he was going to have to do to support his EU colleagues and UHI’s cohort of 374 EU students.

And expressing particular fears for the future of science industries, he said: "It was interesting that this week Brexit leader David Davis was talking about the way in which he wants to negotiate a relationship with Europe that preserves our extraordinary capacity to attract and to develop world-class science.

"I would hope that he and others have got the skills to negotiate such a deal – but I think that the agenda and the outcomes are moving so quickly that I don’t know.

"I want to be optimistic."

He added: "I was very sad with the outcome of the referendum. It’s a tragedy. However, I am also a pragmatist and if that’s the way we are going we need to ensure that not just Scotland but the UK and Europe and beyond still benefits from the intellectual capacity that’s here within Scotland, within Europe."

Prof O’Neil, who joins Inverness College UHI after three years as head of Gray’s School of Art at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, replaces Diane Rawlinson, who has moved to the new role of vice-principal (further education) within the University of the Highlands and Islands.

The 53-year-old father-of-three, who was brought up in Wales, describes himself as the "son of an educationalist" and says his values stem from this upbringing.

He said: "Part and parcel of my commitment to education comes through the fact that that was the topic of conversation at breakfast. He was the Fellow of Education in the University of Cardiff and, interestingly, when I became a Dean at the University of Wales I became his boss.

"Yes, it was interesting – imagine looking after your dad! No, I’m just joking. It was a great privilege."


 First impressions of Inverness?

 I think it’s an amazing place. The environment is so incredibly beautiful and with that beauty the people are warm and I sense that there is a gentle intelligence. My first impressions are what a lucky person I am.

What advice would you give students starting at Inverness College UHI this month?

I would give them the same kind of advice that my dad gave to me, and that’s "when in trouble or when confronted with a problem, think back and think what are the principles that you are trying to deal with". And the other piece of advice is always try walking round in the other fella’s shoes.

What sort of plans will you put in place to try to get more younger people from disadvantaged backgrounds into college and out with a university degree?

One of the reasons that I came to this institution is that this university represents an opportunity for tertiary education that doesn’t exist anywhere else. This is very much a new model and in the context of the Highlands and Islands generally we must have one of the biggest campuses in the world and within that we have an absolute obligation to support people within our communities regardless of their background. So if a young person wants to come here and is finding it difficult for whatever reason to get here then I want to make sure that we do everything we can to get them in here.

What challenges face education now?

 The thing that I find exciting and actually very daunting is that on Friday afternoons we have school children come here who are 14 years old. These children are still going to be employed in 2070, so how do I make sure that they have not just the appropriate skills for now but the appropriate aptitude and attitude for then? The challenge for education now is that it isn’t just about training – it’s about ensuring that they have the right habits, the right levels of engagement so they can continue to develop, monitor their own development and be relevant in 2070. That’s a really daunting challenge.

What are you reading at the moment?

Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain. One of my friends in Aberdeen gave it to me as a leaving present and it’s inscription is "This is the bridgehead between you and I" and I thought that was a really beautiful way to think about the Cairngorms. I’m really enjoying it. It’s about light, it’s about mist, colour, rock, air. It’s gorgeous, it’s the most poetic and beautiful description of the bridge between myself and my friend.

What is your biggest fear?

I don’t like needles and doctors and dentists. And tattoo artists.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I absolutely love to sail. I learned to sail a very long time ago and I love the water. I do have a boat, she’s just a little thing.

If you hadn’t gone down the academic route, is there any other career which would have appealed?

I think I would like to have become a sailor, possibly a pirate, but in the old fashioned sense.

What is your all-time favourite film?

O Brother, Where Art Thou? Anything that the Cohen Brothers have done is incredibly insightful and incredibly elegant. This film, the fact that it’s based on Homer’s Odyssey and it takes the master storyteller into a contemporary context, and the way in which the characters are explored through the dialogue and through the most gorgeous music and through the incredible cinematography.

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