Landscape of dreams

After a shaky start, a pioneering institute in the Highlands of Scotland is inspiring students and policy-makers in the UK and around the world. Lucy Hodges brushes up on her Gaelic
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The Independent Online

From time immemorial, the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have had to leave home to get an education. They have said goodbye to the sheep and the mountains and headed for universities in the cities of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and, of course, St Andrews. Usually, they have gone never to return. The result has been that the most remote and beautiful corner of the British Isles has become increasingly depopulated. Economically, it has been depressed and the local language, Gaelic, has virtually disappeared.

From time immemorial, the people of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have had to leave home to get an education. They have said goodbye to the sheep and the mountains and headed for universities in the cities of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, and, of course, St Andrews. Usually, they have gone never to return. The result has been that the most remote and beautiful corner of the British Isles has become increasingly depopulated. Economically, it has been depressed and the local language, Gaelic, has virtually disappeared.

The hope is that all that will change with the new University of the Highlands Millennium Institute (UHI). "It was a long-standing injustice that such a large part of the country didn't have higher education," says Sir Alistair MacFarlane, UHI's rector and the former principal of Heriot-Watt University. "This is important for Scotland economically as well as culturally. I believe that UHI will emerge as a major force because it's a completely new kind of thing."

Launched in 1993, the institute is an amazingly ambitious project costing £100m, much of it from the Millennium Commission. And it is beginning to make waves as it pioneers a new kind of education. It has flexible entry and exit points so that the 4,500 students can get on and off their studies where they choose. They can do a range of programmes, from degrees to certificates, in subjects that are vocationally relevant to the area. They can learn about fish-farm production and gamekeeping as well as Gaelic, computing, business and health.

And students are not isolated at home staring at their personal computer. Although the UHI uses distance-learning techniques, mainly video-conferencing, it is not a virtual university. It provides real places where people can go to learn and meet one another, staffed by real people.

"It's quite impressive, that," says Professor Oliver Fulton, who has been in charge of partnerships with further-education colleges at Lancaster University. "You really have to hand it to them. If you are a student, you have local access. I think they have been quite sensible, quite state-of-the-art in the sense that they understand you can't expect people to sit at home on their own and use PCs. You have to use video-conferencing so that students can talk to their tutors."

In addition, it reaches residents who are spread over a huge geographical and mainly rural area, from Campbeltown in the south to the Shetland Islands in the north, a distance of 400 miles. For that reason it is being held up as a prototype for dispersed communities in the UK and around the world. Other areas of Britain, notably Cornwall and Cumbria, are eyeing it with interest, and the World Bank has expressed interest in the institute as a model that could be used in developing countries.

The first of its kind, the UHI is a hybrid institution, fusing further education, higher education and specialist research establishments. It calls itself a "networked" institution, a partnership of 14 colleges and research institutions, and of 50 learning centres dotted around the Highlands and Islands. In the sense that it works for the convenience of its students, rather than the other way round, it is a bottom-up venture, and it is perhaps that, more than anything else, that makes it unique.

"Most universities copy Oxbridge," says Sir Graham Hills, former principal of Strathclyde University and the author of the report that led to the setting up of the Institute. "Oxbridge is not a good model in my view because it's too academic and too narrow. The breadth of the first degree is not adequate for people going out into the world, and the specialisation is not enough for the professions. The Americans have had it right for a long time. In fact, the Americans borrowed from the Scots and now that model is being repatriated."

The UHI is not yet officially a university, but it expects to become so, given the big political push it is getting from Scottish leaders. At the moment, its degrees are validated by the Open University, but one day it hopes to do that job itself.

The omens look good. Having been designated a higher-education institution in Scotland, it has won full-formula funding from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council. Scotland's First Minister, Jack McConnell, says that it is his government's aim that the UHI should be a university by 2007, though he adds that any university must earn that status on the basis of quality.

Although there may have been some doubt about the Institute's standards at the start, it is now receiving good reports from the Quality Assurance Agency.

Bob Cormack, the principal, is proud that the environmental sciences won a respectable grade 4 in the research assessment exercise. He will have no truck with the notion of a teaching-only institution of the kind advocated by the Education Secretary, Charles Clarke.

"We have made a clear commitment in Scotland that research will be a strong element," he says. One of the main reasons is that research contributes towards economic development. Thus, the UHI has a newly built marine-science research establishment in Oban that has a research programme funded by the Natural Environment Research Council. It houses the largest algae collection in Europe, and is conducting important research into climate change.

At Perth College, high-level research takes place in the centre for mountain studies. And at the North Highland College in Thurso, the Environmental Research Institute undertakes studies on water purification and the decommissioning of nuclear power stations.

The UHI has a lot going for it. It was not always thus, however. It had a rocky start, and almost collapsed. "It became a bit of a cause célèbre because it threatened to be Scotland's Millennium Dome," says one insider. "It was the biggest single Millennium project in Scotland, but it was genuinely difficult to get going because of the 14 different establishments that had to be pulled together."

The problem, according to another expert, was that the previous chief executive tried to boss around the college principals, until they were in open revolt. In the nick of time, Sir Alistair was persuaded to come out of retirement and restructure the project. He ensured that the principals were properly involved - and the UHI survived.

All Highlanders have reason to be grateful to Sir Alistair. If Gaelic is resuscitated, it will be partly because the institute lasted the course, and with it, one of its most beautiful - and unusual - academic partners, Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the Isle of Skye. It is there that subjects are taught in Gaelic, the only college in Scotland where this happens. Students can take three degrees - Gaelic and North Atlantic studies, Gaelic language and culture, and Gaelic and media studies.

The World Bank calls the UHI "an interesting prototype for tertiary education in the industrialised countries of the 21st century", and says that it represents a radical break with the British higher-education tradition, not to mention the international university model. The problem is that it might be expensive and the infrastructure difficult to organise for developing countries. Those associated with it deny that its costs are greater than those of other higher-education institutions in Scotland. But there is no question that it has been extraordinarily well funded to date by the Millennium Commission, the European Union and the Scottish authorities. "You couldn't do it any other way," says Professor Fulton. "It's not a cheap operation to run. So, 'fair dues' is what everyone says."

WHAT THE STUDENTS SAY

Like Sally Curran, 42, many UHI students are mature and work part-time to keep their families fed and clothed.

Curran, who lives in Kinlochleven, on the north-west coast of Scotland, has a son aged 20 and a five-year-old daughter, and manages to fit her studies around them. She has been an auxiliary nurse for 20 years but decided that she wanted to do something more. "I was 16 when I left school in Inverness," she says. "I did an HNC in social care and some nurse training. But I am very interested in things other than at ward level. I want to know about what is happening overseas to Aids victims and the like. The BA in rural health studies is right for me because it contains everything that I am interested in."

After one year's studying she has done well in her exams and has won a National Health Service award for high achievers. Her ambition now is to get a job in health promotion or to work for a health board allocating services.

Georgina Morrison, 47, graduated from UHI with a BA in tourism. She did the course at Lochaber College in Fort William via video-conferencing. "I left school at 16," she says. "My father made sure that my brothers went to college or did apprenticeships, but not me. I bumped into someone from the Institute and she suggested I try it. My husband encouraged me.

"I signed up for the HNC. Then I went on to the HND, and finally the degree. I was awarded a certificate of excellence at the end of my first year.

"Perth College asked if I would work part-time for them as a tutor and I have been mentoring the tourism students. I love to see others achieving." LH

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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