Post-16 - Students face a long wait or a long walk

1st November 2013 at 00:00
Unreliable buses on Skye make it hard to access education, they say

Remoteness might be an unchangeable aspect of island life, but students at Scotland's most far-flung colleges say problems are being exacerbated by poor public transport that risks damaging their education.

Together with other students across Scotland, they are now calling for better regulation to ensure that local bus services meet their needs, especially in remote areas of the country.

Scott McNally, student president at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on Skye, told TESS that current services on the island made it difficult to get to and from the campus, especially at weekends and in the evening, meaning that they could be faced with taxi bills of up to #163;40.

While there was no expectation for services to run as regularly as in the central belt, students wanted "a 21st-century bus service", Mr McNally said.

"The main problem for us is getting here," he said. The situation is especially difficult for students taking evening or weekend courses, when public transport services are reduced.

"Many students have found themselves stranded in Broadford and Kyle of Lochalsh, resulting in taxi fares in the region of #163;25-#163;40, and while the comparatively short walk from the ferry terminal at Armadale is manageable to students in good health, it is unrealistic to expect people to walk this distance with heavy luggage and musical instruments, particularly in the unpredictable Skye weather," Mr McNally said.

The available bus services were tailored to the needs of school children or tourists, not college students, he said. "Services are fitted round the school runs, and not on connecting with rail, ferry and long-distance bus routes, resulting in long waits for connecting services."

A spokeswoman for the University of the Highlands and Islands Student Association said the problem of a lack of bus services was one shared by students at other remote colleges. "At some campuses buses can be limited to two a day, which restricts students to be in college all day, whether they have a class or not.

"In certain areas, cuts have led to a dip in services and students who live rurally can find travel extremely difficult, particularly as we're approaching winter. This contributes to the already expensive travel options available for students, which we are particularly concerned about."

The issue of bus services is currently being considered by the Scottish parliament, with proposed legislation calling for tougher rules. In response to the bill, NUS Scotland last month said more regulation would "place a greater emphasis on social need, as opposed to profits, in decisions about the provision of bus services".

"In particular, we believe a lack of reliable, convenient and affordable public transport options can be a barrier to individuals accessing, or remaining in, education in Scotland," the consultation response said.

"Many students are on fixed and low incomes and increasing public transport costs can have a significant impact on their finances and ability to travel. This is a particular issue for students coming from more deprived communities, and those living in rural areas."

Professor Boyd Robertson, principal of Sabhal Mor Ostaig, said: "I share the concerns expressed by our student council chair about the inadequate nature of public bus services in the Sleat area of Skye, where the college is situated, and we have made representations through various channels to service providers and transport agencies.

"The college minibus is deployed to take students to and from leisure facilities in Kyle of Lochalsh and other parts of Skye in the evening and at weekends, but it cannot provide a regular daytime facility."

A spokeswoman from Stagecoach North Scotland, which provides local buses on Skye, said: "We keep our network under constant review and regularly take into account feedback from customers when setting routes. In this case, we would be happy to meet with representatives from the college and from Highland Council to discuss what may or may not be possible in terms of our services on Skye."

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