Education was until recently the emigrant ship that drove students out of the Highlands and Islands for better prospects. Now it is the key to the area's revival and retention of its people, Dr Jim Hunter, chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, told the conference. Learning based on the new technologies would help transform the region.
Twelve decades of depopulation from the 1840s had been reversed. Over the past 30 years the population had risen by 20 per cent and Skye now had 10,000 inhabitants against 6,000 in the 1970s. The unspoilt and attractive environment proved the attraction.
"We have a chance to create a society in the Highlands of a type we have arguably never before possessed in Scotland," Dr Hunter said. "A society which combines a buoyant economy with a first-rate quality of life.
"But what has been accomplished so far in the Highlands and Islands is no more than a tiny part of what ultimately is achievable. As is evident from average wage rates in the north, which still lag behind the UK as a whole, all we have done up until now is make a start on catching up."
Dr Hunter, historian, writer and founding member of the Scottish Crofters' Union, believed it was possible to re-create the Highlands in the mould of the sunshine industries of Seattle and the Pacific North West, and emphasised the vital role for the University of the Highlands and Islands.
"Learnng has been something we have been pretty good at in the Highlands and Islands. In relation to the rest of Scotland and on the basis of exams passed, qualifications gained and university places accessed, the region performs far better than any other part of the country and has done so for 10 decades," he said.
The UHI project was "developmentally and educationally" easily the most important initiative for the region in recent times, although "much the most complex and difficult organisation we have ever undertaken".
Making a go of the UHI was fundamental to the growth of the Highlands and Islands as an ICT hub or an "Atlantic North West".
Dr Hunter said that Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, illustrated the revival. It now had 100 full-time students taking degrees through Gaelic, restoring the self-confidence of a culturally attacked community.
"When people were told, as our folk were told repeatedly, that everything about them, starting with their language, was inferior or worthless, then such people will have little belief in themselves," he said.
Dr Hunter praised the WEA's work in the north and stressed its role in delivering less technical brands of learning. "We need people who can think both critically and constructively about what is going on around them. The philosopher sought only to understand the world. The point, however, is to change it."