The cost of provision for Scots islanders is under scrutiny. Peter Urpeth reports
The graduation ceremony on the bleakly beautiful island of Barra, at the southerly tip of the Outer Hebrides, was a proud moment not only for the six graduates but also for the island's community of 1,200 and Lews Castle College, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute.
Not many college principals have to travel more than 150 miles from their offices, including two air or ferry trips, two causeways and endless miles of single-track road, to attend a graduation ceremony.
But for Lews Castle principal David Green, every minute of the journey was worthwhile as such celebrations are proof of the college's success in making lifelong learning a reality for remote communities in Scotland's western isles.
The college, which has its main site on Lewis, aims to provide education and training for some 20,000 people living on the islands of Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, Eriskay and Barra.
But such provision does not come cheap, and findings in the auditor-general for Scotland's report Financial Performance of the Further Education Sector in Scotland confirm that for too long the real cost of providing higher and further education in remote island communities has not been properly recognised by the government or funding bodies in Scotland.
While closure has not been either foreseen or foretold by the auditor-general, his report concludes that by 2006, Lews Castle could be the only college in Scotland whose finances could be described as "very weak".
The report shows that, in the past financial year, the college was running a deficit of £522,000 and that alarm bells were ringing because it is the only Scottish college running a sizeable deficit that had no recovery plan in place.
The cost to the islands' communities if the college were to close is unthinkable.
While the average age of students attending mainland colleges in Scotland is about 22, at Lews Castle it is 40. Many of its students are family men and women with settled homes to maintain. They could not leave to attend colleges on the mainland.
In addition, the likelihood of a younger generation upping sticks has never been greater.
Mr Green said: "If you are unable to give people locally the opportunity for learning, post-school, then that economy and that community are going to struggle to survive.
"If you compound that with the fact that the population of the islands is going to drop by a further 12 per cent by 2016, then I think that if we don't have a college here we will be contributing to the decline in the islands.
"But we do have a college here, and with the support of the government we do have the opportunity to help stem that decline. It really is critically important."
The college thrives on its responsiveness to local education and training needs.
For example, in recent years, because some traditional local industries such as Harris Tweed production and crofting have been in steep decline, training for weavers has been replaced in the college's prospectus by information technology courses and by a string of successful community-specific degree courses such as rural health.
While such courses not only meet the demands of a younger generation of students, they are also central to the sustainability of key local businesses.
The college is also at the heart of the struggle to maintain the Gaelic language. It offers several degree and other courses, and has had notable successes in increasing the numbers of students coming from home and abroad to study in the region, where the language is spoken in the local supermarket.
Despite additional cash for 2003-04, much of this remains in jeopardy. The report confirms Mr Green's warnings of the past seven years about the college's finances - warnings that, he claims, were not really heard until the publication of the report.
Mr Green said that about 80 per cent of the deficit could be accounted for in the provision of staff pensions. The remaining deficit, in excess of Pounds 110,000, is the result of years of underfunding and the fact that almost every other available source of additional finance for the college, such as European funds, has diminished over the same period.
He said that many of the problems were due to the Scottish Further Education Funding Council's long-standing failure to take into account the college's special circumstances.
One of the main problems was that the funding council did not recognise the particular diseconomies of scale faced by a college running courses, often tailormade for local communities, that sometimes attract only a handful of people. Such courses still need someone to teach them, course materials and equipment.
In previous years, the funding council determined that only 57 per cent of the college's students came from areas officially classed as remote. This gave the college, operating over an island chain 130 miles long, little more money than mainland colleges in Moray and the north highlands.
This anomaly has now been recognised and a new assessment made by the funding council for 2003-04 found that 100 per cent of the college's students come from remote areas.
The college had also been underfunded for its work on social inclusion. Mr Green was bemused when he was told the college would be receiving just Pounds 524 more a year out of a funding council budget of nearly £10 million set aside for colleges to promote social inclusion.
The problem, said Mr Green, was that the model employed to assess rural poverty and deprivation was basically geared to urban circumstances. It made little or no recognition of the fact that island households had, on average, only 67 per cent of the average European gross domestic product, he said.
This fact came into sharp focus this year when the college received a record number of requests for student bursaries, reflecting its success in reaching out to deprived local communities.
The social inclusion funding formula has now been changed and, with the assistance of a one-off lump sum payment, it should redress the cash problem.
Mr Green has had to take radical action over the past few years, including not replacing staff, introducing early retirement and voluntary redundancy programmes, as well as skimping on building servicing and purchasing equipment.
Although extra money is forthcoming, Mr Green is unequivocal about the impact of years of underfunding.
He said: "Every single possible source of funding for the college has reduced over the past five years. I feel we are storing up problems for the future by cutting down on these costs.
"Now, with the extra money for social inclusion and the extra money from the funding council, there is a muddling towards solutions, but it has all taken too long."
GIVING PEOPLE A SECOND CHANCE
- When local councillor Ian Macleod started his HND in business administration at Lews Castle College, he was reassured to see a man he had known well since school.
Such coincidences are far from unusual at the college, where the experience of lifelong learning is rooted in the art of the possible.
After 20 years in the airport fire service, Mr Macleod had been forced to retire early when he developed a severe allergic reaction to some of the chemicals used in his breathing apparatus. Running his own business proved difficult. That's when he turned to Lews Castle.
Apart from a year on the mainland, Mr Macleod has lived close to his home town, Stornoway, all his life. At the age of 45, and with a family to think about, leaving to study elsewhere was not an option.
He said: "The college has given us a chance to get qualifications, giving us a second chance in mid-life. People who may have given up on having a second chance now know it's there for them, and that is really important.
It is also unique in that no other college is so geared up to the needs of the local economy."
- Having spent ten years employed as a home help, supporting people in their own homes in small rural village communities on the west side of Lewis, Janet Smith's life and career changed when she injured her back lifting a disabled man.
No longer able to carry on as a home help, and with school-aged children and an established family home in North Bragar, a degree in computing was the answer to her problems.
Ms Smith, who is now terminal manager at Stornoway airport, progressed from a computing taster course to an HNC and then a degree.
It is a course that suited her son as well, and two years after his mother left Lews Castle, he completed the same course and now works locally as an information technology systems manager.
Mrs Smith's husband, a self-taught IT systems engineer at the call centre in Stornoway, is also receiving further Cisco-certified network training at the college.
Ms Smith said: "If it weren't for the college, there is no way I would ever have done this. You can't just leave your family."