UHI's principal aims to deliver a healthy next-generation university

James Fraser wants more cash to benefit students constrained by geography. Olga Wojtas reports

December 31, 2009

James Fraser, the new principal of the UHI Millennium Institute, quips that his ambition is to appear in Guinness World Records for being involved in the creation of three universities over two centuries.

But the only thing he is joking about is the aim of being listed as a record-breaker.

The former lecturer in English and liberal studies has worked in senior management roles for more than 23 years, including stints at the former Queen Margaret College, now Queen Margaret University, and Paisley College of Technology, now the University of the West of Scotland.

He moved to UHI in 2002 as secretary, becoming principal this October following the retirement of Bob Cormack.

Having been born and brought up in the Highlands and Islands, he is determined to see UHI's long-awaited transformation into a university for the region.

He was the third generation on his mother's side and second on his father's to go to university.

"The notion of the importance of education was probably in my mother's milk, and a feature of that society and culture at that time," he said.

But in the absence of a local university, this automatically meant leaving the region - in Mr Fraser's case to attend the University of Edinburgh.

"The idea grew that success was associated with getting away for a university education and staying away. That has a huge bearing on where we are now in the Highlands and Islands, and we want to change that culture."

He stressed that UHI is not parochial and many young people will want to leave home: however, it is crucial that they have a choice.

Ground to cover

Covering an area the size of Belgium, UHI is a partnership of 13 colleges and research institutes, with a network of more than 50 outreach learning centres.

"UHI is a unique tertiary partnership that offers opportunities ranging from access courses to PhDs. I would like it to become an institution of first choice for the excellence of its courses, and an institution sought after for the innovative quality of its research," Mr Fraser said.

UHI was awarded parity of funding with other higher education institutions in 2004, but although Mr Fraser conceded that now is probably the most unpropitious time ever to be seeking more money, by the new year the institution is due to submit a bid to the Scottish Funding Council for an extra £7 million a year.

Ironically, the SFC gives further education institutions extra cash for remoteness, recognising the inherent costliness of bringing together students from small pockets of settlement, but this does not apply to higher education.

The region's population is equivalent to that of Greater Edinburgh, Mr Fraser said, but whereas the capital's four universities receive a total of £300 million a year, UHI gets just £30 million.

He accepted that a university of international standing such as Edinburgh should get significant funds, but added that he remained baffled by the size of the gap. Every year the SFC spends £460 per head of population in Edinburgh compared with £65 in the Highlands and Islands.

"We're absolutely not arguing that the universities in Edinburgh should be weakened, but maybe this needs a bit of examination," he said.

Maturation needs money

Since 2003-04, UHI has expanded its student population by 25 per cent with no extra funding, and the economic downturn is intensifying already strong demand for its courses.

Steady state funding may be appropriate for established universities, Mr Fraser said, "but if you're a new business growing to maturation, you need the capacity to expand. You've got to have more flexibility."

About a quarter of UHI's students bring in only fee income, with the SFC not providing teaching cash for them.

Mr Fraser said an extra £7 million would allow UHI to turn more than 1,000 unfunded full-time equivalent (FTE) places into funded ones. At present, the institution's teaching funding is fixed at 3,500 FTEs, yet UHI has 7,600 students, equivalent to 4,700 FTEs, with a target to double that by 2013-14.

The university title is a crucial badge of quality to attract both home and overseas students, Mr Fraser said.

UHI won taught degree-awarding powers in 2008, with doctoral degrees awarded by the University of Aberdeen.

Following final scrutiny by the Quality Assurance Agency, the hope is that UHI could secure the university title by spring 2011.

While the institution would like this to happen as quickly as possible, Mr Fraser said, it was more important to assure everyone that its application for university status had been adequately tested.

"We are a new-generation university in waiting," he said.

UHI's expertise in delivering teaching to a scattered population, using technology to link small groups of students, is something that could be a model for other sparsely populated areas of the world.

"As we bring a full university range of courses to all our campuses, we must differentiate ourselves from the conventional face-to-face delivery system on the one hand and mere distance learning on the other," he said.

"Our networked delivery and technology must bring a social enrichment to learning that overcomes the constraints imposed on our students by geography."

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