The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) prompted concern among staff and students earlier this year when it announced plans to “integrate” a number of its colleges. Now, UHI has been forced to rethink those plans.
The university, which brings together 13 colleges and research organisations, had wanted to create an “integrated” institution led by four colleges, with other academic partners “welcome to join to any degree at any stage”.
The aim was to improve governance standards and tackle financial challenges brought about by tightening budgets as well as the return of national bargaining and subsequent pay deals.
While the project was in its early stages, it was understood to involve different institutions sharing services, as well as efficiency measures and curriculum sharing.
Concerns were raised around how a group of institutions – some of which are remote and quite distant from each other – could be “integrated” in a meaningful way, and what this would mean for staff and students.
It has now emerged that the university’s “integration board” disbanded in late May.
This, according to a spokeswoman, occurred “following representation from those academic partners not involved in the integration, and discussion which the integration board had with [then further education minister] Shirley-Anne Somerville”.
The spokeswoman says: “The minister was clear that change is required and requested we progress and test a range of options, including integration.”
New governance arrangements will be in place for the 2018-19 academic year to carry out this work, which “will not preclude a different approach for different academic partners,” she adds.
UHI says improvements are needed to its governance, professional services and academic structures to ensure that all students have parity of experience, and to allow staff to develop their careers.
It is putting together a case for change, drawing on evidence from staff, students, executives and boards of governance.
Options under consideration could include integration, but any change would require a period of formal consultation.
A total of nine colleges are assigned to UHI: Inverness, Lews Castle, Moray, North Highland and Perth, as well as the four non-incorporated colleges Argyll, Orkney, Shetland and West Highland.
Like other colleges across Scotland, UHI’s institutions have been under considerable financial pressure, with tight restrictions on government funding and increasing staff costs. Some colleges, particularly those in remote or rural areas, have also struggled with student recruitment.
An Audit Scotland report published last month said that, over the past two years, “some of UHI’s colleges have found it difficult to meet their activity targets”, which has “presented a risk to their ability to continue to balance their income and expenditure in the medium to long term”.
The EIS teaching union, which represents lecturers in Scotland’s colleges, welcomes the greater time and consideration being given to any proposals for reform. The union had raised concerns about the justifications for and practical implications of the integration plans, as well as a perceived lack of consultation.
A spokesman says: “Concerns focused on the fact that there was no clear educational rationale for a new tertiary entity and that the proposals would lead to the erosion of further education in the Highlands and Islands. We also raised concerns about the significant consequences the proposals could have had for staff working in the colleges involved.”
The rethink comes as no surprise to some. John Gallacher, Scottish organiser at the support staff union Unison, says there have been “a number of false starts with this project”.
However, there is no lack of desire for change. Chris Greenshields, chair of Unison Scotland’s further education committee, says: “Unison agrees that the student and staff experience is paramount and that staff development (which in our view is generally poor for many members of support staff in colleges) is placed front and centre of any new approach to the delivery of college services in the future.”
Students and staff should have the same access and experience of services “whether they live in Inverness, Inverclyde or Inverkeithing”, he adds.
Students also want UHI to evolve, according to Alan Simpson, president of the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association. “It’s vital that the Scottish government continues to push UHI into making the changes necessary to put students first,” he says. “Right now there is too much bureaucracy, too many governors and a silly amount of infighting that gets in the way of the student experience.
“I see the next year as an exciting opportunity to shape UHI so that it can become the world-class university we all know it’s capable of being.”
The Scottish Funding Council has welcomed UHI’s new governance arrangements and is considering a request from the institution for strategic funding towards the project.