Tertiary - High hopes that new university will end diaspora of talent

4th February 2011 at 00:00
Since 1425, a university for the Highlands and Islands has been debated. Now it has arrived

This week marked the end of a long journey as the University of the Highlands and Islands was officially launched in Inverness on Wednesday by Education Secretary Michael Russell.

The key moment came in December when the UHI's readiness for university title was approved by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. This led to approval by Scottish ministers and then, in a final act, the go-ahead from the Privy Council in London.

The superlatives were not long in coming. It was "a fantastic achievement", Mr Russell said. It was "a defining moment" in the history of the Highlands and Islands, said Matthew MacIver, chair of the UHI board. It was "an absolutely fabulous day for the Highlands and Islands", said James Fraser, the principal. And it was "a landmark day" for Nathan Shields, president of the students' association.

UHI is largely based on further education colleges, but its network also includes specialist institutions and research centres spread across the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, an area twice the size of Wales. It uses information technologies to link together students and staff in scattered and remote communities.

Although the idea of a Highland university has been around for centuries (in 1425, Perth was identified as a suitable site), its current genesis goes back to 1992 when an investigation by former Strathclyde University principal Sir Graham Hills concluded that it was academically feasible. It was then given unexpected political backing by the Tory Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth and a considerable financial shot in the arm in 1996 when the Millennium Commission gave it a pound;33 million grant.

Although the thrust of a Highland university has been educational, it has always combined that with ambitious economic, social and even political goals. As Professor MacIver put it this week: "For centuries, we have been exporting intellectual talent to all corners of the globe. We are now at a point where that flow can be reversed.

"The new University of the Highlands and Islands will be a powerhouse for the economic, social and cultural development of the region."

Mr Fraser commented: "Granting university status is an irrevocable act and therefore not done lightly and hastily. A great debt is owed to those who had the vision to set off on this journey and to our many supporters who have stayed the distance with us."

Scotland's newest and 15th university has gradually built up to having over 8,000 students taking more than 100 courses, and it has awarded over 2,000 undergraduate degrees since 1999.

However, although it began to award its own degrees in 2008 (rather than these being conferred by other universities), it is not quite at the end of the road. It will be another three or four years before it is able to award research degrees such as PhDs, which is currently done with Aberdeen University.

Mr Fraser acknowledges that the university is not being launched at a propitious moment. "As with all universities, we face challenging times and we will have to be efficient," he told The TESS.

But he suggests the UHI model, as a higher education institution based on the infrastructure of further education, gives it some advantages. Mr Fraser also believes that, as a university, it can expect to attract more overseas students, and not just the Scottish or Highland diaspora keen to learn Gaelic at Sabhal Mor Ostaig or history at the UHI centre in Dornoch.

The university hopes to tap into the seemingly insatiable demand for courses in India and China, and to offer to the rest of the world its particular expertise in subjects such as renewable energy being developed in colleges like those in Thurso and Stornoway.

But Mr Fraser will also keep an eye on a market closer to home. He is keen to target school leavers and to reverse a centuries-old brain drain to universities and jobs elsewhere. A study by Highlands and Islands Enterprise has estimated that, if the pattern elsewhere in Scotland was replicated in the area, UHI would have 30,000 students in the 19 to 39 age group who are not there now.

Mr Fraser believes its strongest selling point for prospective students is "flexibility" - conveying higher education to them without dragging them away from their communities.

Of the university's students, 62 per cent are in the mature age group, with work and family commitments which make it difficult to move away to study.

"I'm fully of the view that, as the personal costs of HE go up and the nature of work changes, people dipping in and out of study will increasingly become the norm, rather than three or four years of full-time higher education," Mr Fraser said. "With our delivery model, we are well set up to do that."

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