A chill wind in the north

20th April 2012 at 01:00
Status quo is `unsustainable' at the University of the Highlands and Islands, report warns

Scotland's youngest university, hailed as a "fantastic achievement" by the education secretary at its formal launch last year, needs to make a series of dramatic changes to avoid jeopardising its future.

A hard-hitting consultants' report warns that maintaining the status quo at the University of the Highlands and Islands is an "unsustainable proposition".

Capita Consulting's report, Outline Business Case for a new operating model: University of Highlands and Islands, highlights a variety of shortcomings in the structure, governance and financial position of the university, which was created through a partnership of 13 FE colleges and specialist research institutions in February 2011.

The report predicts a financial shortfall "in the order of pound;10 million to pound;12 million by 2014-15", half of which would occur in the next financial year, and finds the majority of UHI's partners are currently not financially sustainable.

If the partners do not "radically change" the basis of their working relationships, not only will the future of the university itself be jeopardised, but also their own, warns the report, published in January.

Capita concludes that UHI's governance model is "unduly inefficient and ineffective"; its management structure needs to be made leaner and more transparent; and its court needs to be reconfigured as it is "unwieldy", "too large" and needs to "strengthen its understanding of FE and of HE in FE".

There is no cohesive, shared vision for the future, it finds, while greater transparency and openness between the UHI partners, particularly with regards to financial management, is also needed.

UHI has a diverse portfolio, which includes childhood studies and early years qualifications and used to include the chartered teacher programme. But Capita says it also needs to invest more in research-led teaching and research excellence.

The existing means for the motivation, reward and recognition of HE academic staff in UHI are "not fit for purpose", it says.

David Belsey, EIS national officer for HE and FE, said his union had had long-standing concerns over the nature of the UHI-wide governance structures and the "consequences this has had on staff engagement, morale and development".

Members were becoming "increasingly disillusioned by and excluded from the UHI-wide structure"; HE staff at UHI were "poorly paid compared to other FE and HE teaching staff in Scotland", he added.

An EIS online petition has collected 800 signatures and over 3,000 Facebook "likes" in support of what it says. The union had repeatedly asked the UHI organisation to form a "forum" to improve dialogue between the senior management, academic partners and teaching staff representatives, but had been refused, he added.

A spokeswoman for the university said the "building blocks" approach recommended by Capita had been accepted by the court as the "basis for change", following consultation with its academic partners.

In the meantime, the court had approved a new strategic plan, "including an updated statement of the university's purpose and vision", she said. The financial situation had significantly changed since the review was carried out (September to December, 2011) due to recent government funding announcements, she added.


The `building blocks' model

The Capita review rejects the option of turning UHI into a single tertiary institution, arguing this would compromise local delivery. Instead, it suggests a "building blocks" model - a set of proposals that require improvements in all 11 "blocks" to succeed. These are:

  • vision;
  • governance;
  • management;
  • shared services;
  • regionalisation and post-16 reform;
  • financial transparency;
  • financial resilience and sustainability;
  • research;
  • student voice;
  • teaching and learning;
  • skills and capability.

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