The University of the Highlands and Islands partnership celebrated its tenth birthday on Monday 1 February, the same day it welcomed its new Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Todd Walker.
Professor Todd Walker will join the university from Australia, where he has worked in multi-campus, regional universities for over 20 years. He will initially work remotely from his home in New South Wales, before relocating to the Highlands when local COVID-19 restrictions ease.
Although the origins of the university go back many years, the partnership was officially awarded university status by the Privy Council on 1 February 2011.
The project to establish a university in the Highlands and Islands started in 1991 when Highland Council set up a steering group. The plan to offer higher education opportunities through existing colleges and research institutes meant that courses could be delivered to learners across the region without them having to leave home. The project, which received funding through the Millennium Commission, paved the way for creation of the UHI Millennium Institute in 2001. The partnership has awarded degrees from 2008 and became Scotland's newest university in 2011.
The university partnership now has the largest student population in Scotland, with nearly 40,000 students studying college and university courses each year. It is a pioneer of blended learning, using video conferencing, online technologies and face-to-face teaching to deliver education across the region and beyond. The partnership also has an extensive range of research expertise, focussed on the social, cultural and economic needs of the communities it serves.
Some of its key developments in the last decade have included becoming the regional strategic body for further education in the Highlands and Islands, having over 69% of its research classified as ‘world leading', opening a micro campus at the Hunan Institute of Engineering in China and gaining powers to award its own research degrees. Last year, an independent economic impact assessment found that the partnership contributes £560 million to the Highlands and Islands, Moray and Perthshire economies every year and supports 6,200 jobs.
Speaking about the university partnership's tenth birthday, Garry Coutts, Chair of the University Court, said: "I still remember the day we became a fully-fledged university. It was such a great moment and a huge point in our history. For many it was the culmination of decades of hard work. And we owe a huge debt for all the efforts that got us to that stage. But we must always remember that the expectations were far greater than just being able to say we were a university. We need to become the powerhouse for economic, cultural and social development that was promised. I think we have made great strides in that direction and I am sure we will continue in that ambition."
Professor Walker added: "I congratulate the university on its tenth birthday and commend its founders whose vision for tertiary education for the Highlands and Island is now a reality. Personally, I am delighted to be joining the university partnership on its tenth birthday. I look forward to working collaboratively with staff and students, partners and principals, community and government as we build and strengthen the university partnership in shaping this remarkable organisation for the next ten years."
Meanwhile, Lews Castle College UHI is developing new training opportunities for local businesses with Scottish Union Learning. The College offers a range of professionally accredited training and development courses for organisations – ranging from short commercial courses to individual workshops and bespoke training.
The College is currently working with the Scottish Union Learning to provide a range of learning and development options for the range of employers. Most recently Lews castle College has worked with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union to provide Gaelic Language classes for several of their members across Scotland.
And demand for the latest skills in digital teaching is increasing as lockdown returns and educators are turning to Lews Castle College UHI, one of the smallest colleges in Scotland, which has over 25 years’ experience of delivering and designing online teaching. Its first fully online degree started in 1993 with the first graduates emerging in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in Rural Development Studies.
In 2016, Lews Castle College started up an online postgraduate programme in digital pedagogy (the teaching of education).
According to course leader, Dr Gareth Davies there is a misconception that digital learning is merely a reproduction of what happens in a physical classroom.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," he continues. "Classroom and digital learning are very different disciplines. Digital pedagogy requires new and different skills. A digital teacher needs to think very carefully about what they do and how they deliver guidance to students so that they can then go off and read all about the topic."
He says: "The way we deliver education, like everything in society, has been changed by this pandemic and we are never going to go back to how it was before in education. That includes schools and universities.
"Education hasn't just taken a leap forward, it has been pushed forward. Everyone who is based out of Lews College Castle UHI have vast amounts of experience when it comes to teaching students online all over the world on our courses.
The university and others have developed multiple online programmes. Innovation and development has continued apace but COVID-19 has forced a rapid acceleration of the pace of that change. Throughout the world, schools, colleges, and universities have moved from face-to-face delivery of programmes to online delivery in a matter of a few short months.
One of the earliest exponents of technology to assist learning was Frank Rennie, Professor of Sustainable Rural Development at Lews Castle UHI. Professor Rennie started teaching at the University of the Highlands and Islands in 1993 and delivered his first online lecture in 1995.
Although it was early days in terms of the world wide web, a slow and steady shift towards using technology in education had already taken root across the Western Isles.
He explains: "In the early 1980s, a dial-up computer conferencing system called Rurtel, developed by the University of Guelph Ontario, Canada and used in agricultural education by farmers across the Great Prairies, was used across the Isles.
"Despite the speed being so slow, that users could see letters appearing individually on the computer screen when someone was online, almost immediately, it gained traction across the Western Isles. Those working in education and rural development, which included myself at that time, were among the first to pick up on it."
Over the last 25 years, Professor Rennie and his colleagues across the university partnership have developed a wealth of expertise in distributed learning, with students on courses from all over the world across many time zones.
"The reach of the Lews Castle College is phenomenal and time zones are not a problem for us. We can customise for individual students, many of whom are working and studying at the same time, so this suits them.
"In the wake of the pandemic, University of the Highlands and Islands is getting requests from universities asking us for help. That puts the emphasis on innovation and that's where our new Centre for Online Research and Education comes in. After this pandemic, the way education is delivered will never be the same. The world will never be the same."