Neil Munro finds that size is no constraint on ambition
IT IS a remarkable fact that Shetland, with a population of less than 23,000, supports 100 academic jobs in further and higher education. The posts are split almost evenly between Shetland College in Lerwick and the North Atlantic Fisheries College "over the hill" at Scalloway.
Gordon Dargie, Shetland College's principal, knows his demarcation lines. "If a course is below the water line, it's theirs," he says. "If it's above the line, it's ours."
There was no need for these two institutions to wait for ministerial homilies about the virtues of collaboration rather than competition. Common sense prevails. Scalloway can call on Lerwick for business studies expertise for fish farmers, while engineering students at Lerwick can move on to specialise in marine studies at Scalloway.
It is a long way from 1985 when Shetland established an FE presence in seven classrooms covering seven subjects. Its location told its own story - squeezed into the shadow of Anderson High for pupils requiring an alternative to the academic curriculum.
Now Shetland College's 230 students (full-time equivalent numbers) are spread over three sites (including the Shetland Hotel's former swimming pool, adapted for hospitality courses).
And as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands project, it is also moving steadily into higher education with five sub-degree courses in business administration, computing, environment and heritage, professional development and contemporary textiles and design.
Five years after starting its first HE course, a Higher National Certificate in business administration, the college now stages graduation ceremonies.
All this is small change, of course, in the FE scheme of things. Like Orkney's FE college, it did not go the way of incorporation in 1993 and remains an arm of the local authority, which passes on its pound;1.33 million grant from the Scottish Executive. Significantly, both it and the North Atlantic Fisheries College report to the development committee of the islands council, not the education committee.
Its current status means funding remains on a historic basis, avoiding the "bums on seats" methodology that drives the FE sector in the rest of Scotland. Mr Dargie is in no doubt that the college would have gone under if it had to rely on the student-based SUM count for the past six years.
The small catchment area is one factor. Another, the principal says, is that "we tend to put on courses that people prefer rather than attracting new students which is what pays under the SUM funding regime."
Mr Dargie is none the less preparing to boldly take the college where it has never gone before. Under the snappy slogan "2,000 places in the year 2000", Shetland is now seeking to join the ranks of the incorporated.
Despite a limited local market, it expects growth to come from HE courses linked to the UHI, EU-funded initiatives, part-time studies and mature students.
The change of status also has a very practical purpose. It will give the college charitable status and therefore access to the local oil-generated trust funds.
Mr Dargie says minds were concentrated by the prospect of the loss of the EU millions channelled into the Highlands and Islands under the "objective one" programme to compensate for the area's remoteness and disadvantage. This has now been replaced by a "transitional" fund worth pound;213 million over six years.