University challenge

pound;100m higher education project for the Highlands stalls amid recriminations from its architect and auditor. By Neil Munro

ONE OF the most ambitious initiatives in Scottish education, the pound;100 million project to create a University of the Highlands and Islands, reached its lowest ebb this week amidst academic, management and constitutional recriminations.

The project, a partnership between 13 further education colleges and research institutes in the north of Scotland, has now been told its cherished ambition to become a designated HE institution - essential to unlock support from the HE funding council - has been put on hold by the Scottish Executive because ministers still have particular concerns.

Critics blame part of the problem on the allegedly centralising and authoritarian management of Professor Brian Duffield, chief executive of the UHI project.

Sir Graham Hills, the former principal of Strathclyde University and an architect of the project, says the concept of a heavily-devolved new style of university based on a federation of colleges has effectively been abandoned.

Writing in last Saturday's Herald newspaper, Sir Graham also condemned "an aggressive and unpredictable management style (which) has led to confrontations, illnesses and resignations. If it is true that a house divided against itself must fall, then UHI's future looks bleak".

One leading insider accuses Professor Duffield of taking control of all HE developments into his own executive office in Inverness, "which means fundamentally a take-over of all college HND, HNC and degree courses by the executive office".

The letter from the Scottish Executive to the UHI, which neither has yet chosen to publish, says the colleges and UHI executive remain "unclear" about the responsibility for advanced programmes and this must be clarified.

The letter from Ed Weeple, head of the Executive's lifelong learning group, admits it has a "stark" message. It effectively accuses the project of misleading peope by implying it is a university when it is not and by exaggerating student numbers.

"There is, we believe, a risk of legal challenge if it is not made clear that UHI is not an acronym, and is in no way claiming a status it does not have," Mr Weeple's letter continued. "That, of course, is not to say that UHI should disguise its perfectly legitimate aspiration to qualify in due course for a university title." It will, however, be "some years" before that happens.

This was reinforced in even blunter terms by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, whose audit team accused the UHI of "a persistent tendency to engage in rhetoric to an extent that might give an inaccurate impression of the level of development of the project". Their prospectuses for last year and this suggest there is "an existing university of several thousand students pursuing numerous HE courses".

The QAA found that the prospectuses listed courses which did not exist because they had not been validated, others which had not been started, and some which were not available where they were supposed to be.

An analysis by Hay Management Consultants concluded that the colleges and the UHI executive, who make up the 17-member leadership group, were at loggerheads. Their management processes "appear to leave a lot to be desired," the Hay report - also unpublished - states. It was evident that "while there is a common understanding of the mission, commitment to it does not appear to come from the bottom of the heart - at least not in everyone's case".

A spokesman for the UHI board of governors dismissed Sir Graham Hills's "increasingly isolated views". It said progress towards designation as an HE institution is "excellent".

After an upbeat presentation to Highland councillors on Wednesday by Professor Duffield, Michael Foxley, a Lochaber member, accused civil servants of trying to undermine the UHI. Along with local critics, he said, "they want to hang on to their established institutions".

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