Two major bridges to cross before UHI dreams are fully realised
The lengthy gestation period to bring a fully-fledged university to the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is reaching a critical stage.
The "university in waiting", a network of 13 further education colleges and research institutions stretching from Shetland to Perth, will have to pass two key tests within the next few months: approval to become a university, and winning its case to the Scottish Funding Council for more cash.
Although this phase of successive attempts to bring a university to the Highlands dates from 1992, when former Strathclyde University principal Sir Graham Hills produced his ground-breaking report proposing a "new- style" university, James Fraser, the recently-appointed principal, believes the landmark year was 2001, when it became a higher education institution.
There have been other remarkable breakthroughs: the pound;33 million from the Millennium Commission made 1996 a decent enough year, and history was made this year when more than 200 students became the first UHI graduates after it was granted degree-awarding powers for its teaching (not yet for doctoral degrees).
But, as Mr Fraser acknowledged in a UHI briefing for the lowland press last week, it is the university's record on research, and the degrees it can generate, which will finally influence the Quality Assurance Agency for higher education on whether or not to recommended university title to the Scottish Government and, ultimately, to the Privy Council in London.
The application to the QAA goes in at the end of this academic year, and the earliest a decision could be expected is spring 2011, said Mr Fraser, "but it could take longer". It has made respectable progress: the most recent league table, based on the regular research assessment exercise (RAE), showed UHI in 96th place out of 132 HE institutions across the UK. There are now 100 "research-active" staff in eight areas - health, renewables, marine industries and Highland heritage are those where Mr Fraser suggests it has particular strengths.
The other major question mark hanging over UHI is whether the funding council will give it the money to grow. It has been fighting to convince the council of what former principal Bob Cormack called a "fundamental inequity".
UHI points out that its 13 institutions receive around pound;30m in HE grant from the SFC; Edinburgh, with a population similar to the Highlands and Islands of around 450,000 and with four universities, gets pound;300m. The difference is pound;65 per head of population for UHI and pound;460 in Edinburgh.
Mr Fraser says: "We are not saying Edinburgh should be weakened in any way and, of course, the world-class standing of its higher education institutions has to be recognised in terms of funding. But the disparity needs to be addressed."
Since 2003-04, the UHI student population on HE courses has expanded by 23 per cent, without any extra funding, and stands at 7,600 (4,618 in full- time equivalent numbers, which combine those attending part-time and full- time). Mr Fraser says there is a "vibrant demand" for UHI courses, which the economic downturn has increased.
His own demands are modest - an extra pound;7m a year from the SFC, which would allow the university to bring in another 1,500 funded students. A submission will go to the funding council by the end of this month. Mr Fraser says the funding mechanism "must have greater flexibility to allow a growing institution to reach maturation".
But he has the experience and patience to realise that his university-in- waiting will have to play a waiting game. As someone who has held senior management posts in Queen Margaret College and Paisley Tec, before they became universities, he quips: "I would like to get into the Guinness Book of Records for being associated with the creation of three universities - over two centuries. It takes rather a long time."
Mr Fraser, a native of Wester Ross, remains undimmed in his enthusiasm for a Highland university. "When I was growing up, success was associated with going away to university - and staying away. We are not a parochial university, and we don't want to rob people of the option of going away - but we do want them to have the choice."
The role of the university in growing the local population continues to be as important as educating it.
Sir Graham Hills's blueprint for a Highland university foresaw it leading the way in technology-based learning - making a virtue of the area's remoteness, and Mr Fraser agrees it will be different, but not merely by the use of distance learning. "The experience of learning is enriched by the social dimension so that, for example, we use video-conferencing to link students from Barra, Shetland, Kingussie and so on. We are the largest user of video-conferencing among HE institutions anywhere in the UK."
But, for Mr Fraser, his main ambition is that UHI should become "an institution of first choice for the excellence of its courses, and an institution sought after for the innovatory quality of its research".