Merger will ensure colleges have a stronger role in the future

Message from Michael Foxley, Chair of the Merger Partnership Board

Our region is on the brink of a blue and green industrial revolution. In all my years living and working in the Highlands, I can’t recall a more significant moment for our local economy than right now. From ScotWind, a programme which will lease areas of the seabed around Scotland for wind farm development, and Opportunity Cromarty Firth, a bid to see the area around the firth become a ‘Free Trade Zone,’ to Space Hub Sutherland, a project which would see satellites launched into space from a site near Tongue, it is an incredibly exciting time to be part of UHI, a college and university which supports its community by providing access to learning at all levels.  

 

We have a real opportunity to grow our fragile economies and reverse the population decline in some of our rural and island communities, but we have to be ready for it. If not, we risk failing a generation. 

It is just one of the reasons why UHI North Highland, UHI Outer Hebrides and UHI West Highland are exploring merger. Despite our collective successes, our colleges are small - we are facing flat funding, increased running costs, and operating across dispersed communities with small, declining populations. By coming together we will create a more resilient, financially sustainable organisation. Merger will protect local jobs in these challenging times (we’ve already ruled out compulsory redundancies as a direct result of merger) and ensure we remain key employers in our rural and islands communities. 

 

Merger is also about being able to do more. We want to be able to continue to serve our local communities in the way we do now, but with combined capacity to do more - more for our students, more for our

communities, and more for our staff, something we see as critical in today’s post pandemic environment and with the cost-of-living crisis.  

 

Our 19 campuses and learning centres stretch from Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty to Lochaber, Skye and the Western Isles – an area interconnected in terms of key ports and harbours which line a coastline linked to many of the economic recovery opportunities around net zero decarbonisation, renewable energy, engineering and advanced manufacturing and aquaculture. We are perfectly placed to deliver the training and skills development for employers and key industries, but we must do this together so we’re ready to respond. While we can deliver the qualifications, we need support to develop urgent and radical solutions to the affordable housing crisis in our rural and island communities not just for students, but workers who will be employed in these areas of growth.   

 

We also know that merger will create opportunities to develop our curriculum across environmental research and sustainability, the built environment, leisure and outdoor tourism, hospitality, and health and social care. Gaelic language and the training of Gaelic teachers will remain a priority for this new college. Our students won’t just benefit from a wider, more flexible learning offer, we will enhance the student experience, ensure equal access to support, and provide a stronger student voice.  

 

Last month we formally launched a 10-week public consultation into the proposed merger of UHI North Highland, UHI Outer Hebrides and UHI West Highland. We believe this will be transformational for our rural and island communities – creating an anchor institution of scale and impact within UHI, and the region, supporting 9000 students and 600 staff. 

 

There will be no centralisation. A principal designate will be appointed later this year and a transition board formed to lead the implementation of a new college – taking the knowledge, expertise, talent and best practice from all three, and ensuring we bring this together in an implementation plan that delivers on our ambitions for our communities. Our executive management team and board will be distributed across our existing college areas, ensuring we have local management in place and continued presence in our communities. Relationships with key stakeholders are maintained through the formation of local advisory committees. 

 

But it’s important we get this right. We need people to get involved to have their say. The consultation runs until 14 October and there are lots of ways to get involved, including online information events and drop-ins within campuses and learning centres. You can also make your views known by completing our merger survey or emailing our merger email at rural-islands-merger@uhi.ac.uk. 

 

Feedback received during this consultation will help refine the business case for merger, which will be considered by each of the college boards of management later this year. 

 

By working together, we will become a stronger voice for our rural and island communities and ensure we continue to play a key role in making our towns and villages attractive places to live, work and study. The stakes couldn’t be higher.