We need to get back to vision

1st September 2000 at 01:00
BRIAN Duffield's resignation as chief executive of the University of the Highlands and Islands Project is long overdue. He had been given the mission of achieving higher education institute status for UHI, and this he had failed to do. This point appears to have been lost on those who have heaped praise upon him.

The main reason why he failed is that his proposals are unworkable. Despite this he apparently continued to receive the support of the UHI Foundation, the UHI board of governors and of college boards of management.

Duffield's response to issues raised by the Lifelong Learning and Enterprise Department, arising out of the consultation process, was to resubmit his proposals, only slightly amended. The result is that the higher-education institution designation has twice been delayed, and with no firm date now set for designation.

The lack of comment from college boards of management says much about Duffield's proposals. The limited public statements have been perfunctory, while privately college principals and board members acknowledge that the plans imply an unwelcome centralisation, loss of autonomy and loss of control of finances. This could be seen as a dereliction of legal responsibilities and would almost certainly lead to a rationalisation within FE colleges in the UHI network. But boards of management had Hobson's choice - they were damned if they went in and damned if they stayed out.

Duffield had lost his way a long time ago. The origial vision of a federal, collegiate university was ditched and replaced by an expanding, centralised institution, and a management style and procedures that were increasingly overbearing, bureaucratic and labyrinthine. These seemed, more often than not, to hinder rather than support academic development in partner institutions.

The centralisation was funded by top-slicing the Scottish further education budget. It led to a turf war between partner institutions for control of courses, because in a cash-starved and perpetually crisis-ridden FE sector this meant money and jobs.

Anyone who has had anything to do with UHI will know that its quality assurance procedures are seen as a bureaucratic hurdle, that constantly increases in size and is constantly moved. So much for the glowing Quality Assurance Agency report that no one in the colleges has apparently seen and that UHI is not allowed to publish.

UHI needs to return to the vision outlined by Graham Hills. The sooner it does, the sooner it will receive HEI designation, and go on to provide the people of the Highlands and Islands with a much-needed service. Otherwise it will end up becoming the Scottish Dome; expensive, unloved, largely unused and built on poisoned ground in an economic backwater. Like the Dome, it appeared to be the answer to a political problem, but when it went wrong, no one had the guts to pull the plug on it.

Nicholas Taylor

EISCLA branch convener

Moray College

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