For almost a quarter of a century, lecturers and economists from Kirkwall to Kingussie have argued that new educational opportunities would reverse the trend. Their ambitious plans to link 11 northern colleges of further and higher education to form the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) have been dismissed as far-fetched and premature. But the establishment in April of UHI Ltd, a company designed to secure the estimated pounds 45m needed to fund the new institution, has given the proposal fresh impetus.
Supporters insist that the demand for higher education in one of Europe's most marginal areas will ensure that Scotland's 14th university will be established within the next decade. Robin Lingard, manager of UHI Ltd, says: 'The Highlands and Islands account for one sixth of the land mass of Britain, with a small population but a great will to secure university-level education. That demand will be met; it is not a question of if, but when.'
A report last year by the Edinburgh- based economic consultants Pieda concluded that with pounds 40m investment to upgrade existing colleges from Shetland to Perth, the new university would be viable. Although the Government has refused to fund the project, UHI officials believe that the company will attract 'substantial investment' from the private sector, the Highland Regional Council, the area enterprise board and the European Union (some pounds 260m of European aid is scheduled for the Highlands and Islands in the next five years).
'UHI Ltd is a major step on the road to securing the finance we need,' says Mr Linguard. 'It may be that we will have to postpone our target starting date of 2001, but we will secure the investment to proceed quickly to achieve university status.'
Academic advisers describe the proposed institution as 'the university of the future'. It will not have a central campus. Instead, students and staff at centres scattered around the Highlands will exchange information by personal computers linked through the region's advanced communications network.
And there will be no lectures. Students will assimilate the basic course information themselves, freeing tutors to spend most of their time conducting seminars and tutorials, either face-to- face or by video conferencing.
Professor Sir Graham Hills, the former vice-chancellor of Strathclyde University who is the project's academic consultant, says: 'Tutors will spend as much time as possible doing what they do best - teaching. With so many colleges around the Highlands, lectures at central locations are not an option. Besides, we believe that they are a singularly inefficient way of communicating basic information.
'Because we are effectively starting from scratch, we can use the new 'enabling technologies' to encourage students and staff to use their time in the most productive way, liberating students and staff alike.'
Sir Graham's vision is supported by information technology specialists. Professor Peter Cochrane, head of research at BT and visiting professor at the universities of Kent, Essex and Southampton, says UHI could 'mark the beginning of a new chapter in higher education in Britain'.
Earlier this month, in a speech to university vice-chancellors, Professor Cochrane held out the prospect of the rapid growth of 'electronic universities'. Britain should embrace new, hi- tech learning methods to begin to reduce the proportion of time students spend (90 per cent on average) finding and ordering information, and increase the time they have for making decisions and judgements, he said.
'Britain was really fast off the mark with the concept of the Open University, but that has stagnated. The future is going to be interactive, faster and much more dynamic and challenging. It is vital that we seize the technology and use it widely. The UHI could mark the beginning of the process.'
To succeed, the new university will have to attract 4,000 'full-time' students. At present, the Highlands has only about 1,500 students in higher education, but UHI officials believe that the high standard of living the region offers will attract new and mature students from outside the area. The project, which could inject as much as pounds 70m into the local economy each year, is not a luxury but a necessity, they say.
'The Highlands and Islands, an area larger than Belgium, are on the periphery, geographically and economically,' Mr Lingard says. 'If the Highland tradition of losing young, qualified people continues, the region will decline sharply. The UHI project is the biggest development project in the area, and it will succeed, regardless of what our critics say, because the price of failure for the Highland people is too high.'
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