Inspired by EU

Alastair Sim, Universities Scotland's new head, hopes his European experience will help safeguard his country's institutions

June 4, 2009

Alastair Sim is taking up the reins as director of Universities Scotland - which represents Scotland's 21 universities - in a time of economic uncertainty, but is adamant that Scottish institutions will remain competitive.

"As we head into a much tighter public funding environment, I think there is going to be an awful lot of work needed to make sure Scottish universities continue to be resourced at a level that enables them to be serious international players," he said.

Mr Sim, director of policy and strategy at the Scottish Court Service, has had a broad career working with government. Educated at the University of Oxford, he went on to take a masters degree at the University of Delaware in the US, writing a thesis on the Victorian crisis of belief.

He then joined the Civil Service in 1989, and by the early 1990s he was working in the UK government as a private secretary to the Conservative MP Sir Hector Monro, among others. "It was a good introduction to working at the centre of government," he said.

A six-month secondment to the European Commission allowed him to gain the experience he believes will be critical in his forthcoming role. "It was a good background to working with the European institutions and with an international bunch of people," he said.

"When you're working with universities, that's one of the huge strengths that the sector brings to Scotland - a small nation on the north-west edge of Europe, we're keeping ourselves internationally focused and connected."

Mr Sim became head of division at the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department in 2001, but his interest in higher education grew in 2004 when he was seconded to the University of Glasgow as director of planning services. "I found working at Glasgow a tremendously energising experience. I was working with an institution that was repositioning its ambitions and helping it become that bit more ambitious and successful."

He became the institution's representative to Universitas 21, an international group of research-led universities, and was struck by the investment in China's higher education.

"The world is changing so fast, and Scottish and British higher education can't keep up unless it's really aware and connected to the opportunities out there," he said.

He has completed an MPhil in creative writing at the University of Glasgow, and his novel, The Unbelievers, will be published this summer. Though he knows funding will be tight, Mr Sim has also promised to retain the Scottish sector's commitment to widening participation. He will replace David Caldwell at Universities Scotland on 1 July.

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