UHI: where FE and HE combine

Written by Tom Freeman on 7 April 2015 in Feature

The University of Highlands and Islands is unique in the UK because it offers a broad tertiary education

Inverness College will open its new campus in the Autumn, and hopes to attract students from all over the Highlands and beyond.

Professor Clive Mulholland, UHI Principal, says it is natural for Inverness to have a large campus as it is the major population area, but he points out the university is anything but centralised. It is unique to Britain because it delivers tertiary education across both further and higher education. “Because of the geography and the stretch we need different solutions up here. In terms of educational opportunities, the university is the perfect provider for that,” he says. 


Under the UHI banner are further education colleges from Perth to Shetland, as well as some highly specialised research institutes. At the start of the year, UHI shot up the new university league tables after impressive scores in the Research Excellence Framework. In addition, there is the unique way in which education is distributed and integrated. 
Mulholland says a student could come in on a one-day-a-week access course and leave with a PhD. 
“You could come in on a learned trade. You could come in and become a plumber at one of our colleges. You might do that and decide then ‘I’ve done my plumbing qualifications, I’m going to go out and work’. But then, in a couple of years’ time when you’ve had a few years’ experience, you might think, ‘actually, I quite fancy being a mechanical engineer, and I remember at the college you can do a degree in engineering’, and you end up going back to the college you’re comfortable and familiar with,” he says. 


The challenge for Mulholland is fitting the unique structure into accepted practices. Because the university has FE colleges it is subject to two conflicting quality assurance regimes, for example. “We’re made up of colleges and research institutions, and some of those colleges now fall under ONS, so they’re public bodies. That causes problems for us when we come to consolidate our accounts. I need support from politicians to look at possible alternative structures as we develop,” he says.


The UHI has cross-party support, however. It was established to have a transformative effect on the region. As well as attracting businesses and jobs to skilled graduates, and vice versa, it was also intended to slow a brain drain in young talent away from the Highlands, a region which already has a greater population of older people than elsewhere. “We get that brain drain down to the central belt and they just never come back,” says Mulholland. The UHI, he says, can give young people the option to stay at home. “What we’re trying to do is provide that choice, to say, ‘look, if you want to stay at home, these are the offerings we can make for you, which are just as good as anybody else’s. It may suit you better’,” he says.

“We get that brain drain down to the central belt and they just never come back"

 


Skills shortages remain an issue for the Highlands. A report for Skills Development Scotland last year highlighted while the economy in the Highlands had “grown strongly over the last ten years” and potential for growth was “of national significance”, recent patterns of migration “reinforced the older age profile of the Highlands and Islands and over many years has created a deficit of skilled people of working age, particularly in the 15 – 39 age group.” 


The Science Skills Academy, a partnership between business and public sector bodies, enables children to gain employable skills. Hendry says it is providing opportunities from primary right through to apprenticeships. “Instead of being asked the question at the age of fourteen, ‘what do you want to do?’ to which most of us answered ‘dunno’, the idea is you give young people the opportunity to say ‘actually, I’d quite like to be a vet, or an engineer, or I’d quite like to do welding’ or something like that. And these are jobs we’ll need in the future.”

“Coming to the Highlands is a lifestyle choice"


But as well as retaining young people, in the short term, the region needs to attract workers, including GPs and teachers to remote areas. Highland council leader Drew Hendry says the council is challenging the low-wage economy, and it became a living wage employer in 2012. “Challenging that low-wage economy across the care sector, across tourism, across all the employment opportunities we have here is something absolutely critical to us,” he says, adding: “I’m pleased to say there’s a number of different private companies locally who have now joined us and have implemented the living wage. We want to build on that example. But it’s not just about the living wage. We need to make sure the job opportunities for our people here are sustainable across the piece, in all different types of employment.”


Mulholland says the UHI is attracting students to its diverse campuses because of their own particular culture and attractions. “I’m looking to see how we can grow academic areas out in Fort William, how can we grow Shetland? Shetland has a fantastic music scene, and we’re just appointing a new professor in creative industries who will be based in Shetland. Archaeology and Nordic Studies in Orkney. Stornoway we’ve got Lews castle, they’re doing fabulous stuff on applied music as well. So what we’re doing is we’re using the social and cultural capital we’ve got to develop quite unique offerings,” he says.


Mulholland himself only moved to the Highlands to take up his role at the UHI last summer. What attracted him to the Highlands? “Coming to the Highlands is a lifestyle choice. This is one of the things we’re looking at to attract students inward. We’re saying if you come up here it’s clean air, it’s safe, you can go skiing in the winter, in the summer, mountain biking or hiking.”

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