One of Scotland's most deprived regions is benefiting from an original further education and university partnership. Olga Wojtas reports
The Scottish Borders is one of Scotland's loveliest areas, with picturesque vistas of rolling hills and winding rivers. But the Borders is also arguably one of the country's most deprived regions. The traditional textiles industry has withered away, hit by cheap overseas labour and complacent management. Those companies that remain have refocused on the luxury end of the market, but cashmere is now a victim of the United States' bizarre banana war sanctions. The woes of agricultural industry, the other mainstay of the Borders, are well recorded. Prospects of new opportunities were brutally dashed two years ago when Viasystems, the American-based electronics giant, closed down its plants in Galashiels and Selkirk with devastating job losses.
But now tertiary education is offering fresh hope to the region, in a remarkable collaboration strongly supported by the local council and development agency. Just after the Viasystems catastrophe, the Scottish College of Textiles in Galashiels merged with Heriot-Watt University, which has its main campus in Edinburgh. The two centres are only 33 miles apart, but there is no rail link, and the roads are treacherous. The university won funding for a Pounds 1 million broad band link to allow videoconferencing between the two campuses, along with new open and distance learning opportunities for the Borders.
Heriot-Watt's vice-principal, Gareth Owen, said: "We were aware of the need for links between higher and further education, and suggested that Borders College link in with our academic network."
The further education college, which has spent more than Pounds 1.5 million on information technology over the past three years, now has full access to the SuperJanet network. The IT links have boosted its outreach work, essential when the 150,000 population is spread over more than 100 square miles. The largest town, Hawick, has fewer than 16,000 inhabitants, while Galashiels has less than 14,000.
The college's principal, Bob Murray, said: "Colleges have been looking towards diversification, but rather than diversify, we decided to do the same thing in different geographical areas. One of the great strengths of the college that people appreciate is that it's on the ground in local communities."
The Borders often feel doubly marginalised. Dr Murray said that talk of social deprivation always focused on urban rather than rural areas. When rural Scotland is mentioned, people think of the Highlands and Islands, although the south is 20 per cent of Scotland's land mass.
But there are signs that the Scottish Further Education Funding Council is taking the difficulties of rural colleges on board in its new funding formula, and appreciates that the Borders have virtually the lowest wages in the country. Dr Murray praised the SFEFC as open, helpful and willing to listen. He acknowledged that the college had won funds for its rural role, but there was nonetheless wry amusement when it attracted a mere Pounds 900 for social exclusion. "I was tempted to say: 'I know that student'," Dr Murray said.
The college has resolutely taken a partnership approach to higher education, Dr Murray said. In what he believes is a unique move, Heriot-Watt staffs a one-stop learning shop, Heriot-Watt University@Borders College, in the college's Hawick outreach centre. It offers careers advice, a range of flexible courses, including open and distance learning, and also helps transfer university expertise to local business.
Mark Craig, the college's head of corporate affairs, said the two institutions had "negotiated away" potential competition to the point where everyone sits amicably round the table and helps one another. "For example, we agreed we would pass up the opportunity to offer Higher National level computing because that was one of their strong suits. We would offer only National Certificate access level, and direct students to them," he said. "They have passed up the opportunity to offer Higher National courses in business and accounting, which are things that we offer."
The demarcation is not about drawing a line but allowing each institution to play to its strengths.
"It doesn't put us in the position of being a pseudo-university, or make them have to be good at vocational training, because that's not their bag," Mr Craig said.
Heriot-Watt's Borders campus, with 750 students, includes the university's school of textiles, 15 per cent of the school of management and a department of combined studies, through which students take a range of modules. The university's Don Bryden said the Borders campus was set for a dramatic boost in research. There are some 15 full-time PhD students, but this is set to expand to more than 50 with the expected increase in support from research councils and industry.
Professor Bryden, formerly Heriot-Watt's vice-principal, is now director of the innovative Pounds 2.2 million TechniTex Faraday partnership. The four-way partnership, backed by the Department of Trade and Industry and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, brings together the country's leading universities in textile technology - Heriot-Watt, Leeds and the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology - with BTTG, the largest independent textile institute in Europe, to reinvigorate Britain's textiles industry.
The partnership will help companies work with leading researchers to produce innovative products and processes, and Professor Bryden stressed that "textiles" was now a much wider concept than Borders tweed. The campus may still have courses aimed at fashion and design, but it is also involved in the advanced technical textiles used in the car, construction and defence industries, as well as health care. Medical materials include innovative dressings for wounds, artificial organs and surgical implants. In a joint venture with Scottish Borders Council and Scottish Enterprise Borders, the university is setting up incubator units that it hopes will attract start-up companies. It is also developing a technical textiles testing unit, while the college has a knitwear design and technical centre offering industry the chance of computer design facilities for small knitwear runs.
"The area is very attractive to live in, but it has a high proportion of older people. It needs a stimulus for economic development and growth to attract young people," said Professor Bryden.
The Borders unemployment rate may be low, but that is because the unemployed migrate to the cities in search of work. In the region's bid to improve job prospects, while the university is beefing up research, the college is concerned with core skills.
"When Viasystems collapsed with 1,000 people made redundant, that was one in 30 of the working population," Dr Murray said. "If this were replicated in a major conurbation, you would have seen tens of thousands of redundancies. We retrained hundreds of people, and what we are trying to do is give people a range of skills, particularly IT core skills, so that they are employable when employers come along."
The college attracts about 8,000 students a year, 7 per cent of the region's population. It runs courses for a range of key trades, such as plumbing, hairdressing and construction, to ensure that nobody has to leave the region to study. "This gives us a little bit of a problem in that we don't always have large numbers and have to be very innovative," Dr Murray said. The three-year plumbing course, for example, may have only ten students, he said, and the students in all three years are taught together.
All the college's higher education courses have been aligned with degree courses at both Heriot-Watt and Napier universities, allowing advanced entry to degrees. The college has won support from the SFEFC to offer the first year of Napier's nursing degree, enabling students to stay at home.
"One thing that made this very attractive to Heriot-Watt and Napier is that if kids go straight from school to Edinburgh, there's a huge dropout rate. It's a real plus for them, because the statistics show that the kids have a better chance of success if they come here first," Mr Craig said.
"The care sector in the Borders is the fastest growing sector of all, and courses in social and health care are very popular. If we can arrange for students such as women returners or single parents to only have to study in Edinburgh for one year rather than three, we feel that's a real advantage to the population."
But the college is not solely concerned with educating people for jobs. Very neatly for marketing purposes, its youngest student (in an after-school club) is eight, while the oldest is 88 - both are studying IT. "We have courses in stick dressing - carving walking-stick handles - courses in dog training, golf and aromatherapy," Dr Murray said. "It's a social thing as well as anything else, and we are very important in providing a community bond, which is just as valuable as the academic stream."