All periphery and no centre - the University of the Highlands and Islands eagerly awaits official recognition. Huw Richards charts the development of an imaginative initiative bringing opportunity to a remote area
Scotland's highlands and islands have waited more than 300 years for their own university. There was a serious proposal for one at Cromarty in the seventeenth century. More recently, in the Sixties, Inverness lost out to Stirling in the race to host a new Scottish university.
Exactly when its wait will be ended with the official designation of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is not yet clear. A formal bid went into the Scottish Office (now the Scottish Executive) at the end of 1998. The chief executive, Brian Duffield, is hopeful it will be formally recognised before the end of this year.
It will crown almost a decade of development work following a report by Sir Graham Hills, formerly principal of Strathclyde University, which was hampered by a lack of commitment from Scotland's political masters.
The environment changed in 1996 with a speech by Michael Forsyth, then Secretary of State for Scotland, seeking the means of preventing the immolation of the Conservatives before the imminent general election. Today the main voices of scepticism have come from unions concerned that the university's unique partnership structure - based on 13 colleges from Perth in the south to Shetland - threatens the further education mission in the region.
Mike Webster, principal of Perth College and deputy chief executive of the UHI, compares its structure to a polo mint: "All periphery and no centre." The headquarters is in Inverness, housed in buildings older and far less imposing than many colleges have acquired since the Millennium Commission made the project a pound;33.4 million grant back in 1997.
Today there are around 5,800 students - 2,500 full-time and 3,300 part-time - equivalent to 3,600 full-time. One criterion for university recognition is 4,000 full-timers, but Mr Duffield points out: "That is not the main issue. We are already as large as Abertay (university in Dundee) and considerably larger than Queen Margaret (university college in Edinburgh)."
Numbers dropped marginally this year, as they did across Scotland in the wake of tuition fees, but Mr Duffield is confident of growth towards the target of 4,000 full and 4,000 part-timers by 2003-4 once the Cubie proposals on student finance are implemented.
Courses are accredited by the Open University Validation Service, but Mr Webster points out: "They are courses that we wrote and deliver." The first validations - Moray and Perth - took place in 1997.
Students and institutions have benefited from massive capital investment, including a pound;25 million hi-tech information network. Mr Duffield points out that students account for 60 per cent of the video-conferencing usage. But he has banned UHI staff from calling it a "virtual university" - face-to-face teaching is delivered on each campus and 50 local learning centres are being developed.
Mr Duffield is well aware of the issue of mission drift. "The most important thing is to be aware that the risk exists," he says. "We must be very clear about our mission and those of the colleges in the partnership. Once we are designated, we will be responsible for higher education and will be funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for Scotland while the colleges retain their autonomy as institutions and will be funded by the further education council."
Inverness College, down the rad from UHI's headquarters, vies with Perth for the title of largest partner within the institution. Its total of more than 8,000 students includes 735 full-time UHI students and more than 1,000 part-timers, while Perth has 845 full-timers and 900 part-timers.
Both instituitions have around one third of a total volume of work that Perth's principal, Mike Webster, points out is as large as some polytechnics were in the Seventies.
Graham Clark, his opposite number at Inverness, has no doubt there are big benefits from belonging to the UHI: "There are serious intellectual benefits. It offers new opportunities to the college and to the community it serves and has helped to refocus as an institution". But he notes that there are also significant costs, estimating them at around pound;500,000 annually - a sizeable sum for a college with an income of around pound;12 million.
"We have had to develop a range of new courses, extend our Higher National Certificate and Diploma courses to degree level and convert existing courses validated by Strathclyde so that they met the requirements of UHI and the Open University," he says.
Maintaining the FE mission is a priority. It has meant ensuring that resources like a new centre in Fort William and activities like community outreach work are not deprived of funds or energy.
On the Shetlands, there are two places to study post-16: the College of Further Education and the National Fisheries College "If it's above the waterline, it's ours; below, and it's theirs," says Gordon Dargie, principal at Shetland, explaining the demarcation between the two institutions.
While Fisheries looks after a national industry, Shetland attends to the lifelong learning needs of 23,000 people spread across 15 islands 200 miles north of the mainland. Mr Dargie points out that the nearest town of any size is not Inverness but Bergen.
It makes for a distinctive institution: "The range of educational needs is the same as anywhere else, so we inevitably have small classes and small departments - most with only two or three lecturers. It would be very easy to feel very small and isolated."
Small it undoubtedly is, with only 250 students. Involvement in the University of the Highlands and Islands has not only brought in 55 students - expected to rise to 80 next year - but has done much to combat isolation by creating links with partner institutions.
"It has made it possible to introduce new subjects like archeology and a new course like textile and craft design, developed between our department and the one in Orkney," says Mr Dargie. "Our archaeologist, Simon Clark, teaches an evening class in Perth via video-conference."
Business studies students - the largest group in the college - had to leave the islands or give up their studies once they completed diplomas. Now progression is possible. In return, students from other small colleges - one from Stornoway is using the IT network to study rural development - get the benefit of Shetland specialities.
Mr Dargie has no desire to stop those who wish to leave the islands, but says: "We need to be able to offer the chance to pursue a career here if you wish." He argues that local industries such as textiles and fisheries will need qualified staff to prosper. One course is a two-year diploma in textile and design, with the option to go elsewhere to complete a university degree in another two years.
"Four years away can be very expensive, so two at home followed by two away is very attractive. It isn't all or nothing as it used to be."