"DO WE really need another university?" might be the cynic's cry to news that Paisley University has merged with Hamilton's Bell College to form what is likely to be known as the University of the West of Scotland.
Its principal, however, is well prepared for such scepticism and can point to an ambitious set of aspirations that should give the new university a distinct identity.
"From our point of view, there was a big gap with the lack of a university presence in Lanarkshire," says Seamus McDaid, who segues into his new role from that of principal at Paisley. "It's critically important for the west of Scotland to have this presence it is a big issue."
The university with 18,000 students spread over campuses in Ayr, Dumfries, Hamilton and Paisley covers a highly-populated area, but one in which relatively few go on to higher education. It will aim to attract more people from poorer or rural backgrounds to apply for places. The university also highlights the importance of lifelong learning and knows the difficulties of fitting in study with other demands Paisley Univer-sity has more part-time students than almost any other in the UK .
But it does not intend to be a niche player. Professor McDaid points to the 1,400 international students at Paisley, and underlines that he wants the new institution to have broad appeal in Scotland and further afield.
With the merger promising greater financial clout although it will remain a relatively small institution in international terms he hopes it will also attract academics. He emphasises the importance of working closely with employers and on professional development, as well as undergraduate programmes. "We've got to attract students from all backgrounds," he says. "The university has to be international, dynamic and have a wide range of people involved."
Although the university will have the country's largest school of health, nursing and midwifery with 5,000 students Professor McDaid wants it to contribute to the nation's well-being in a wider sense. With many health workers due to retire soon, and the NHS struggling against nationwide problems such as obesity, Professor McDaid believes the university's "big footprint" in a geographical sense can help. He sees it working closely with health boards, and discussions have already been held with the Scottish Executive chief medical officer, Harry Burns.
The merger enjoyed "overall a broad consensus of support", according to findings of a Scottish Executive consultation. Yet there were dissenting voices. One came from Ayr College, whose board of management argued that Paisley University and Bell College had struggled to meet recruitment targets and that the new university would result in "unneccesary competition" with local colleges.
Professor McDaid describes these comments as "ill-judged and inaccurate", and says that the merger could actually benefit Ayr College. Many Ayrshire students, he points out, leave the area to go on to higher education and never return a trend he sees the university reversing by working jointly with the local college.
But Hugh Logan, principal of Motherwell College, believes the "jury is out" on what impact the new university will have on other colleges. "We have had discussions and it has given assurances that it will migrate to delivering degrees rather than HNCs and HNDs," he says. "That process is not going fast enough and we remain to be convinced. The matter is exacerbated by the ludicrous and anomalous situation where, for HNCs and HNDs, Bell College's funding is significantly higher than ours."