Minister's university pledge
The University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute (UHIMI) is on course to achieve university status by 2007 - but it all hangs on the successful outcome of talks with the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.
Although this has been the aspiration of UHIMI (based on the area's 14 colleges and research centres) for some time, the final stamp of authority has come from the First Minister himself.
Giving the annual lecture at the Sabhal M"r Ostaig college on Skye, Jack McConnell declared: "It is our Government's stated aim to have the UHI Millennium Institute achieving university status by 2007."
Mr McConnell said there would be no short cuts compromising quality, but his undertaking could not be more uncompromising: "The development of the UHI Millennium Institute is perhaps the single most important thing we in Government can now do for the long-term prospects of the Highlands and Islands."
"Fulsome support" is how Bob Cormack, principal of the institute, sees the First Minister's pledges. "As a native of Arran, Mr McConnell understands the issues," Professor Cormack added.
The UHIMI has so far led a charmed existence, since it attracted pound;30 million from the Millennium Commission in 1996. It has already achieved higher education status and Mr McConnell noted that it has received a commendable rating for its teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources in the 11 subject reviews carried out by the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education.
From having just 17 degrees in 1998-99, its constituent partners are projected to award 262 in the current year, validated by the Open University.
Such is the educational and political commitment invested in it, UHIMI is an initiative that cannot afford to fail. Professor Cormack said he was confident all subjects would be QAA reviewed and degree-awarding powers granted by 2006.
But the next step, of winning the actual university title the following year, will be the subject of talks with the HE funding council - which is said to have been taken aback by the firmness of Mr McConnell's pledge.
There would have to be a fast-track mechanism to reach the final destination; Professor Cormack said the envisaged timescale would not be possible if they had to play by the existing QAA rules.
But he remains adamant that the UHIMI will be an institution for research as well as teaching. "It's been made very clear to us that we will not be going down the route in England of having a teaching-only university," he said.
While there is no requirement that a specific number of staff have to be "research active", colleges such as Perth do require all those teaching at higher national and degree level to at least be "research aware", according to Mike Webster, the principal, who chairs the executive board of UHI.
The institute's research focus emerged as one of the unlikely bones of contention at last week's "overcoming the tyranny of geography" conference on HE in sparsely-populated areas.
Sir Graham Hills, the former principal of Strathclyde University and one of the fathers of the UHI project, said the case for research is over-stated and he contested the view that good researchers make good teachers.
"You have to be many things to be a good university teacher, and research can be one of them. There can be mission-driven research, curiosity-driven research and industry-driven research - but we shouldn't give it a capital R and we should be less reverential about it."
But Sally Brown, emeritus professor at Stirling University who formerly headed the Scottish Council for Research in Education, countered that such a view was "misguided". She said scholarship is a very important underpinning of good teaching, "and I don't agree that we should not be pushing for that".
Oliver Fulton, professor at Lancaster University, agreed with Professor Brown that research is what makes HE distinctive. "This is not undermined by the fact that there are some people who don't do both equally well," he added.
Meanwhile, the UHIMI is developing research capacity across a range of distinctive areas - environmental sciences (which won a near-top grade 4 in the HE research assessment exercise), agronomy, aquaculture, archaeology, Gaelic, health-related studies, Highland history, marine and freshwater fisheries, nuclear decommissioning and remediation, pedagogy, theology and social policy.
Despite that, the UHIMI leaders are keeping their eye on the main requirement so that by 2007 they will fulfil the obligation to have a minimum of 300 undergraduates in five different subject groupings, indicating that the institute has a spread of expertise; it also has to have a strong PhD showing.
After that, Mr McConnell can face the electorate in 2007, able to claim he has delivered a university in the Highlands and Islands.