Merger maestro

Neil Simco's prior experience setting up a university bodes well for the future University of the Highlands and Islands

August 6, 2009

Delivering relevant business degrees in the most remote parts of northern Scotland is a difficult job, but Neil Simco believes he knows exactly what his students want.

"We should not be trying to emulate some of the big business schools around the UK. The Highlands and Islands is a very distinctive socio-cultural landscape," said Dr Simco, who was recently appointed dean of business and leisure at UHI Millennium Institute.

"While we want students to have an opportunity to pursue a career anywhere in the country, there will be a bespoke element to our provision that matches the needs of business within the region."

In his previous role, Dr Simco was dean of education and research at the University of Cumbria, and he played an instrumental role in the merger of colleges that formed that institution in 2007.

"That made me begin to be a leader and manager outside my discipline," he said.

The experience of setting up the small team that oversaw Cumbria's establishment was ideal preparation for his latest role, and he is gearing up for the challenge of creating a new university for the second time. UHI Millennium Institute hopes to become the future University of the Highlands and Islands, delivering higher education through a network of local colleges across the region.

"We're bringing quality higher education to students who are living in relatively remote locations," he said.

Last August, UHI was given the power to award its own taught degrees, a significant step towards gaining full university status.

"It's a developing organisation," Dr Simco said. "I'm hoping to talk to smaller business federations and begin to ensure that we develop distinctive products for the marketplace. Our job is to make higher education as accessible and straightforward as possible, and we need to reach out to schools at an early stage."

Coming from what he describes as "a fairly traditional upbringing" in Orpington, Kent, Dr Simco has worked in education throughout his adult life, starting out as a primary school teacher. Moving into higher education was "quite an unusual direction" for someone of his background, but he had "a passion" for learning.

After completing a PhD in education at Lancaster University, he took up his first academic post at the same institution as a lecturer in professional studies. By 1998, he was co-ordinator of teacher training at Lancaster, when the department was split off and merged with St Martin's College.

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