Change in law could be the only way forward for UHI

September 1, 2000

The resignation of chief executive Brian Duffield last week from the troubled University of the Highlands and Islands project follows months of turmoil.

Board chairman Sir Fraser Morrison accepted his resignation just before the project's consultative body heard a confidential report into whether there had been a cover-up of complaints of mismanagement and bullying.

But there are other equally serious issues about the progress of the Pounds 100 million project that have attracted less publicity.

UHI originally set itself a target of becoming a designated institution of higher education by December 1998, with university status by 2001. But the Scottish Executive has outlined a series of concerns that stand in the way of designation. Crucially, this involves the type of institution it is going to be.

The UHI project involves a network of 14 further education colleges and research institutes offering post-16 courses up to postgraduate level.

Scottish Executive officials say this will have the feel of a multi-campus institution but, legally, UHI will not be a federal, collegiate body. The colleges and institutes will not be a part of UHI, but contractors, and while senior staff will play a major role as members of UHI's academic council, they will do so as individuals, not institution representatives.

The key role for UHI's central core in Inverness is very different from the project's original model, which involved minimal centralisation.

Sir Graham Hills, former principal of Strathclyde University and academic adviser to the project, said the original concept was of a collegiate federation of participating colleges.

"But this has gradually become more of a satellite model with a powerful centre and less powerful partners," he said. "Federations generally depend on consensus, which means that the reins of power should be used loosely. In the end, everything will depend on the colleges, and the university has to be the colleges acting in concert."

But difficulties have emerged in trying to fit such a novel institution into existing legislation, which deals with further and higher education separately. Legal experts argue that UHIhas evolved in the only possible way because of these constraints.

There are separate legal arrangements for accountability in each sector: the further education colleges will continue to deliver further education, funded by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, while higher education will be the responsibility of UHI, funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council.

Existing federations involve a group of directly funded higher education institutions. But UHI believes this is not a feasible model, arguing that Shefc cannot fund the academic partners since none is in the higher education sector.

Sir Graham said the existing legislation should not be invoked in the case of UHI: "It might be thought that something as special as a collegiate federation would have required a different approach, and some variation of the (Education) Act to fit in with its particular requirements."

This arguably offers a challenge to the Scottish Parliament. In the last debate before summer recess, MSPs voiced their concern that UHI had not yet been designated a higher education institution.

Alasdair Morrison, deputy minister for the Highlands and Islands, said this stemmed from the technical and constitutional issues covering the respective roles of UHI and its academic partners.

Mr Morrison has pledged a cross-party meeting this month to discuss the project's progress. It may well ask whether a unique institution deserves unique legislation.

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