The University of the Highlands and Islands project this week unveiled its blueprint strategy to win university status by 2001, writes Olga Wojtas.
Its consultative document sets a deadline of December 1998 for its federal network of 13 further education colleges and research institutes to become a "designated institution of higher education", the first step towards gaining degree-awarding powers.
An Open University visiting panel has recommended that the OU's validation service should accredit UHI. Sir John Daniel, the OU's vice-chancellor, and Mike Webster, chair of the UHI network academic council, this week signed an academic partnership agreement to increase higher education opportunities in the region.
Potential students are scattered throughout a region covering a fifth of the area of the United Kingdom, and UHI will rely on a radical approach to teaching and learning, based on information technology, with a high-speed telecommunications network expected to be set up by April 1999.
It wants a partnership with industrial, commercial, voluntary and community organisations to help design and deliver a "community curriculum", with courses geared to the region's economic, social and cultural needs.
Mr Webster said UHI's plans resonated with the government's green paper on lifelong learning.
"The University of the Highlands and Islands will create learning environments in which further education and degree-level courses will not only proceed side by side, but be accessible in the most remote areas of the region, affording educational opportunities hitherto not envisaged."
The report says UHI hopes to attract around 5,000 full-time equivalent higher education students by 2000-01, redressing the historic underprovision of higher education in the area. It estimates that 90 per cent of higher education students from the region study elsewhere, the majority of them "reluctant leavers".
An Pounds 85 million capital development programme is largely in place, the report says. But UHI still has a target to raise some Pounds 6 million in private funding, as well as minimum annual support of Pounds 2.5 million for academic development.
The report acknowledges that UHI faces a major challenge in developing the research expertise necessary for a university. A finalised strategic plan is expected to go to the Scottish Office in July.