The Scottish Secretary performed an unexpected if rare U-turn this week when he told the Scottish Grand Committee in Inverness that he was willing to explore plans for a University of the Highlands and Islands.
Michael Forsyth stopped short, however, of a concrete commitment to a project that will cost up to pound;100 million over the next six years to link 12 further education and research centres. The project has lodged a pound;50 million bid with the Millennium Fund.
The Scottish Office has previously described the drive for a Highland university as "premature and prejudicial" (TESS, July 16, 1993). But Mr Forsyth is prepared to explore the idea further. "It means finding a way of doing it that is cost-effective and sensible," he told MPs Mr Forsyth added: "The university is a tremendous opportunity to use new technology to create a new style of university in this year of the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden."
The Scottish Secretary said later that the Scottish Office had been concerned that the university would be an old-style campus centred on Inverness. He claimed his own conversion came during a visit to Skye this summer when he saw the potential of harnessing technology for distance learning at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig Gaelic college.
The Scottish Office will have to be convinced, however, that the project is not just an exercise in shuffling around student numbers. Aberdeen, Stirling, Robert Gordon, Heriot-Watt and Napier universities are all key providers in the area and the Scottish Office commented in 1993 that "expanding the contributions these five universities make is the best way of offering worthwhile education in the Highlands and Islands".
Val MacIver, Highland Region's education chairman and a driving force behind the project, said she was "absolutely thrilled" at Mr Forsyth's announcement. Peter Peacock, convener of the new Highland Council, described the move as "highly significant".