Principal who heralded end of ‘vanity courses’ apologises

Furious backlash against comments by University of the Highlands and Islands leader Todd Walker

September 8, 2021
Todd Walker, principal and vice-chancellor, University of the Highlands and Islands
Source: University of the Highlands and Islands

A principal has apologised for saying that there would be no more “vanity courses” at his university.

Todd Walker, who has led Scotland’s University of the Highlands and Islands since February, told a local newspaper that his institution was “not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector”.

The comments, in an interview with The Inverness Courier, came at the start of a curriculum review at UHI that would, he said, “examine, among other things, workforce alignment and demand”.

“One of the biggest focuses over the next five years will be to make sure that courses and training we provide are aligned to growth in the economy,” said Professor Walker, who moved to Scotland after serving as deputy vice-chancellor of Australia’s University of New England.

“I’d go on the record as saying the days of having a vanity course, unit or subject are over. We’re not here to study something for which there is no direct employment, growing market or sector.”

The comments provoked a furious backlash on social media. Allan Kennedy, lecturer in early modern Scottish history at the University of Dundee, tweeted: “An incoming VC who uses language like ‘vanity courses’ and ‘workforce alignment and demand’ should immediately be dismissed.”

Shirley Curtis-Summers, lecturer in archaeological and forensic sciences at the University of Bradford, tweeted: “I dread to think what [UHI] archaeology and history students, as well as other arts and humanities students, are thinking right now. Time for management to challenge this.”

Following the criticism, Professor Walker issued a statement in which he said he was “sorry for any confusion or distress this has caused”.

“I understand the concerns of some students and staff following the article in today’s Inverness Courier – especially the headline focusing on ‘no more vanity courses at UHI’. The tone of the article is at odds with my thoughts and hopes,” he said.

“There is no hidden agenda, or message in this article from me that some courses or subject areas are more important than others.”

However, Professor Walker did not suggest that he had been misquoted. He said UHI had “flagship courses in a wide variety of subject areas, including those in arts, humanities, social science as well as engineering and health”.

“Our curriculum review will examine what our students and communities want and need in the future – that is the mission of our university. It will be a transparent process and will take two or three years to complete and will involve staff and students throughout its implementation,” Professor Walker added.

“Learning in all its forms is transformational, and our university has a responsibility to continue to provide education to our communities.”

Speaking to Times Higher Education earlier this year, Professor Walker said his priority would be to “transform” UHI to make it “more connected, streamlined and sustainable”.

UHI is a unique institution with 13 campuses spread across the north of Scotland and more than 70 local learning centres.

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Reader's comments (1)

There is an economic aspect to the culture of the area - Gaelic, music, literature and history contribute to tourism for example. Having a strong living culture makes it a more interesting place to live, so it seems like a false dichotomy, without suggesting that potential students don't need jobs.


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