A Pounds 33m windfall for the Highlands

4th October 1996 at 01:00
Not even Sir Graham Hills in his most visionary moments would have expected the Highlands and Islands University project to get a windfall of Pounds 33 million from outwith the Government. The former Strathclyde principal had faith in the idea when others, especially his former colleagues in the universities, regarded it as pie in the sky. Residents of the Highlands and those charged with the economic regeneration of the area have pressed the case hard, but it needed outside help to succeed.

That help has come from three sources: the intellectual credibility Sir Graham's initial study gave the project, the conversion of Michael Forsyth on the road to the Grand Committee in Inverness and the Millennium Commission's commitment, which would not have happened without the other two elements. By the turn of the century, in line with the millennial concept, there should be a university in Lerwick and Perth and at all compass points between.

The cash will go towards the information technology links on which the new university will depend. It will also help with buildings at several of the college sites. It does not in itself bring a charter or set up annual subvention from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. There are institutional and academic hurdles to be jumped before a 14th university is born. No one has suggested that the project will be excused the procedures that faced, say, Dundee Institute of Technology before it emerged as Abertay University. These included meeting targets of 4,000 students and a significant range of academic disciplines. Already there are in the UHI colleges 2, 700 full-time equivalent students on higher education courses, but attaining a broad academic canvas will take several years.

The Pounds 33 million grant is four times more than this year's capital grant to the 43 FE colleges. The constituents of the new university have been excused the Scottish Office capping of higher education courses. But resentment at favourable treatment of the UHI project will be less in further education than in the universities. Maxwell Irvine, until recently principal of Aberdeen, has said that there are enough universities already and that students from the Highlands are adequately served.

Potential recruits, especially mature students, who cannot afford to study in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow (traditional magnets for Highlands and Islands teenagers) would dispute Professor Irvine's assertion. But they have to realise that it is borne out of frustration. Universities have had to live with chronic underfunding, especially of academic salaries. The UHI will find its largesse short-lived but its promoters are entitled to a period of jubilation and of optimistic planning.

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