The new principal of a Scottish university working from home - in Australia

It is around 6pm for Todd Walker, but he comes onto a video call and says “good morning”.

The new principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands is sitting around 9,000 miles away and around nine hours ahead of UK time.

Professor Walker took on the role of principal at the height of lockdown and has been working from home ever since – in Australia

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When he started in February, the time difference was 11 hours. As he sat at home, which sits on the Gold Coast around half way between Sydney and Brisbane, he plunged into his new role with a relentless programme of video calls with new colleagues and students.

Professor Walker and his wife Jayne, who are due to relocate to Inverness. PIC: Contributed.

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“I think what surprised staff at first was I was sitting there with my fan on wearing a shirt and they were all in their jumpers with their fires on,” Prof Walker says.

Despite the difference in location, the challenges posed by the pandemic to deliver good work from home are universally recognisable – not least the video calls.

Prof Walker works from around 5:30pm to 2am from a desk in the corner of the living area of his apartment while his wife and son keep more regular hours around him.

Professor Todd Walker, the new principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands, is working from home in New South Wales, Australia, given lockdown has left him unable to travel to Scotland. PIC: Contributed.

"At first, the time difference was 11 hours and I was working through to 3:30am,” he said. “It took a bit of adjusting to. The first month was a bit tough, but it has found a rhythm now.”

His nocturnal schedule flips between meeting colleagues, politicians and learners to hosting events for 40 to 50 people.

He has now cut meetings to 50 minutes from an hour to allow for a small breather in between.

"It brings with it a different style of tiredness,” he said. “Before, there would be a gap between meetings, but then the gap became zero seconds so you have to switch gear. It does bring a degree of fatigue."

Prof Walker, an accomplished clinical cytologist, previously worked for University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales.

There are some parallels between his old institution and the University of the Highlands and Islands given the commitment to remote learning over a wide geographical area.

At the University of New England, the number of students studying online is higher than the population of the town itself.

At UHI, some lecturers have been delivering virtual lessons for 30 years with students based around the world.

Mr Walker’s planned arrival in Inverness with his wife Jayne in January was halted amid Australia’s border closures.

He said: “I’m eager to get to Scotland and meet people face-to-face, to get to know them and to see them.

"It’s really important to support staff who have been working through this disruptive environment.

"Some staff want to get back to work, they are finding it a bit tough at the kitchen table but others like the flexibility.

“We are social creatures. We like to come together, we like to celebrate moments of success, but I think there will always be an opportunity for a blended model.”

He is now hoping to arrive in Scotland in a month or so.

“We are good to go – we have had the suitcases packed for quite some time,” he said.

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