The expected rubber-stamping of the decision to merge three further and higher colleges in the Highlands and Islands has been applied.
But after what's described as fulsome support for the merger from all and sundry, there's a real challenge summed up in a single sentence in the official media release.
"Consultation on the name of the merged college continues."
Officially the boards of management at UHI North Highland, UHI Outer Hebrides and UHI West Highland have voted unanimously in favour of merger. UHI Hebrides is the rebranded version of Lews Castle College and was only launched just over six months ago itself.
Now these names, new and old, must all vanish by August 2023. But as the poet Edward Lear said about cats:
"The naming of cats is a difficult matter
It isn't just one of your holiday games"
And it's even worse for colleges. They are already part of the University of the Highlands and Islands…so that takes a few of the available terms for itself. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig remains outside the new agglomeration so that reduces the chance of a geographical term still further.
Is there a single figure after whom the college could be named? Is there anyone from any time, well-known across the Outer Hebrides as well as the west and north highlands?
Will it just become UHI West or UHI Atlantic?
Whatever happens to the name, work on the merger continues after the boards met last week to formally approve the merger proposal and business case, which has now been submitted to the Scottish Government for approval ahead of a proposed merger date in August 2023.
The merger proposal and business case has support from UHI, as the Regional Strategic Body, as well as key bodies, organisations and political representatives including MSPs for the merged college area - Alasdair Allan MSP for the Western Isles, Kate Forbes MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, and Maree Todd MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross - and Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and Skills Development Scotland.
It is claimed that by coming together, UHI North Highland, UHI Outer Hebrides and UHI West Highland will create a more sustainable organisation with combined capacity and resource to grow curriculum, research and innovation; develop our partnerships to support employers address the skills shortages in our area; and become more responsive to the social, cultural, and economic opportunities.
With 9000 students, 600 staff and 19 learning centres and campuses stretching from Caithness and Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty to Lochaber, Lochalsh, Skye, and the Western Isles, the merged college is ideally placed to respond to the region’s key growth sectors including the economic opportunities around net zero decarbonisation, renewable energy, engineering, advanced manufacturing, and aquaculture. Gaelic provision will also be a priority for the merged college.
The decision follows a 10-week public consultation and a successful visit by the Scottish Funding Council to campuses in Fort William, Stornoway and Thurso.
The public consultation found the majority of staff, students, external stakeholders and members of the public were supportive of the case for merger, and the vision, mission, and values of the merged college. More than three quarters of staff who responded believed it would positively impact and strengthen the activities of the colleges, while the majority of students surveyed felt it would impact on their student experience positively.
Other positives associated with merger included increased opportunities for staff development, an enhanced student experience, financial sustainability, more course options for students and the opportunity to focus the collective strengths of all three colleges to better support our local communities. The willingness of key stakeholders to support the merger was also noted.
Dr Michael Foxley, Chair of the Partnership Board leading the merger programme, said: “This decision is testament to the great teamwork and positive energy of the executive team, merger programme team, board members, staff, and students. We have a clear vision for our merged college and have growth ambitions to develop our partnerships and create new learning and training opportunities that directly benefit our communities, encouraging more people to live, study and work across the North and West Highlands and Hebrides. This is a tremendously exciting and positive time for our three colleges, and we look forward to working collaboratively with all our stakeholders as we move towards a vesting date next year.”
Heather Innes, President of the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association (HISA), added: “HISA are pleased with the decision made to proceed with the merging of UHI North Highland, UHI West Highland and UHI Outer Hebrides to become one stronger and sustainable institution. As a student-led organisation we are proud that the students were given such encouragement to provide their views and opinions regarding the proposal. We plan to continue working closely with UHI staff and students to ensure the student voice continues to be a major part of the process in creating the best college for our current and future students.”
The three colleges have already confirmed:
- There will be no compulsory redundancies as a direct result of merger.
- Staff will keep their current terms and conditions of employment when they transfer into the merged college.
- The merged college will have incorporated status, ensuring access to public sector pension schemes. The colleges have already committed to adopting national bargaining on pay.
- A distributed management model will be adopted, ensuring senior leadership is distributed across the merged college area.
- The formation of local advisory committees to ensure the views of local stakeholders are heard.