The University of the Highlands and Islands comprises 13 colleges and research institutions in communities across the north of Scotland, with its Head Offices in Inverness. The University was granted full university status in 2011, with the unique designation as a tertiary institution, offering both further and higher education in face-to-face, blended, online, and distance formats. Students can choose vocationally-oriented further education, with one-year certificates, two-year diplomas, and other certification options provided by the Scottish Qualifications Authority. They also can enrol in higher education, with four-year and graduate degree programs.
While the 13 colleges and research centres previously operated independently, the University of the Highlands and Islands structure brings opportunities to share programs, services and provide a much wider range of choices and opportunities for students throughout the region. The University combines locally-based institutions with a regional structure, offering what is described by Dr. Gary Campbell, Dean of Science, Health and Engineering, as “the chance for everyone in the region to go as far as they can in education”. His favourite example is a student who first enrolled for a certificate in Chain Saw Operation and eventually graduated with a Master’s in Forestry.
The development of the University from 13 independent centres to a full-fledged University moved through various stages as the need for centralized executive, policies, practices and support evolved. The University of the Highlands and Islands highlights three key themes in its vision statement:
- Quality of students’ experience and achievements;
- Innovative approach to learning and distinctive research and curriculum, enriched by the people, natural environment, economics, culture and heritage of the region and its communities; and
- Locally based, regional in structure, with national and international reach.
Other articles in the International Pockets of Innovation Series describe some of the core services and units at the University of the Highlands and Islands working to achieve this vision:
- Enhancing Student Learning, Curriculum Resources, Staff Development, and Employer Satisfaction in the Educational Development Unit at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland;
- Creating Policies and Initiatives at a University with 13 Partner Institutions: Academic Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland; and
- A Hub for the Enhancement of Educational Practice, Scholarship, and Research at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland.
Receiving the university designation required a stronger central core for academic leadership and governance, as well as continuing discussions about changes the individual institutions are experiencing. The University of the Highlands and Islands is the only tertiary institution in Scotland and this requires new thinking and new approaches. Professor Crichton Lang, Deputy Principal, describes the leadership and structural challenge as a planet orbiting two sun systems – one higher education and the other further education. The choice would be to circle one closely – as most institutions do – or to maintain an equal distance and relationship with both – as the University of the Highlands and Islands must do.
The innovative structure and strategies of the University of the Highlands and Islands reflect the core of the vision statement.
Regional Structure, Local Focus: The 13 colleges and research centres, supplemented with more than 70 local learning centres and an extensive network for online delivery, provide expanded access to courses and degree programs. Matrix management involves each partner in decision-making. For example, faculty across the colleges have to sign off on new program delivery and content.
The University of the Highlands and Islands is one of the biggest users of videoconference technology in Europe. With distance delivery, student registrations can be accumulated across the region, making more programs and courses economically viable. The Archeology program offers an example of local expertise being shared regionally as lectures and field trips from the Archeological Centre are offered via videoconference. Virtual field work and laboratories allow students at a distance to become familiar with the site, procedures, and discoveries at the Orkney Islands site – preparing them for their actual site work. According to Gary Campbell: “Students are never more than 30 miles from 20 degree choices.”
Innovative Learning: The University does not have one delivery model; rather courses and programs are designed to best serve students, content requirements, and staff based on four core approaches:
- Local programs offered in a single site;
- Multiple campus or networked delivery of programs and courses;
- Learning in the field for site-specific programs, such as archeology in the Orkney Islands; and
- Off-campus, online programs accessible by regional, national, and international students. Currently, the University of the Highlands and Islands offers 15 online bachelor degrees, 10 online master’s programs, and 40 blended programs supported by videoconferencing.
More detail on these models can be found here.
As an example of an innovative development, an accelerated degree in Geography was designed and offered, particularly aimed at 18 and 19 year olds who recently completed secondary education. The program, offered over 2 ½ years without summer breaks, was built by a group of faculty to be offered online. Each course is offered by subject matter experts, with one tutor, an expert in student support and engagement, to mediate their experience. The students meet with each other face-to-face and virtually, as well as online with tutors and lecturers who come from many different colleges. The program achieved a 98% retention rate. As it was a new approach, negotiations were necessary around funding, internal acceptance, and union agreements. The program offers a successful model to guide changes in delivery of other programs.
Faculty Collaboration and Transparency: The two faculties – Arts, Humanities, and Business; and Science, Health and Engineering – each have three subject networks that include faculty from across the institutions, with primary responsibility for curriculum development. These subject networks, as well as the discipline-specific schools and faculties such as Child and Youth Studies, cut across the majority of academic partners.
As an example of cross-institutional activity, marks are reviewed across each faculty to ensure results are fair. Lists of marks are shared online and reviewed by all faculty members with discussions, explanations and, sometimes, adjustment of anomalies, due to such factors as different marking judgements or group of lower achieving students.
Institutional Innovation: Professor Lang describes the experience of the new School of Health, Social Care and Life Sciences as an example of how development on a region-wide basis benefits all partner institutions and offers students more cohesive access to a greater variety of programs. The integrated School of Health received increased funding for research and development and a broader geographic reach working with health boards inside and outside the region. Through these dialogues, opportunities emerged such as the possibility of new allied health degrees in areas such as an optometry and posts for 25 researchers and PhD students in such area as digital health, remote and rural health, and bio-informatics. The catalyst was negotiations with the Scottish Government, Chief Nursing Officer for Scotland and Stirling University through which The University of the Highlands and Islands gained 300 places in order to offer regulated nursing education programs and, building from this the possibility of further expansion in clinical and social care specialities. As a regional structure, the new School brings together internal and external expertise and bodies for interchange and economies.
Contributing to Regional Development: The University responds to a need for regional access to educational opportunities for its more than 40,000 students. In addition, the University works with local industry in economic development, training, and expertise sharing initiatives. For example, the University is cooperating with an aerospace company on specialized pilot training for a newly developed local facility, industry-specific research, and encouraging students to consider aerospace careers. A metal resource company recently invested in the region, looking to the local college for help with training, research and development – with support of other institutions in the University network. The College offering the Golf Management Program, endorsed by the Professional Golfers’ Association, delivers its program throughout the region, serving the numerous local courses. Future initiatives include working with the whiskey industry on its training needs.
Outcomes and Benefits
Bringing together 13 colleges and research institutions provides expanded access to higher education throughout the region, as availability of options grows. For example, where students in Inverness had access to one degree program in an independent college, they now can choose between more than 20 programs.
Using technology enables the University to achieve a critical mass in registrations, essential for program expansion. Student numbers increased 47% since gaining university designation. Additional funding allowed degree programs to increase from 30 to 82. Growth in registrations has largely been in degree programs, while further education remained stable. This reflects not only increased program and course offerings, but also the changing nature of demand and expectations in the region.
The University is able to serve a far more pivotal role in regional development. Being a tertiary institution that integrates further and higher education enables a diverse response to graduate and employer needs through scaffolding educational opportunities. For example, graduates with one-year vocational certificates can enter the workplace to gain experience which can be assessed and accredited through the extensive program of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition. This may provide as much as a second-year of credits which can then be supplemented through online learning to completion of a four-year degree.
Graduates develop skills in technology use for learning, research, and communication.
Professor Lang stresses that among the University’s constituent partner institutions, there is a commonality of mission and a shared enthusiasm for this mission: “The commitment to students is what leads us to work through any issues that arise.”
Challenges and Enhancements
Students, whether from secondary education or traditional institutions, must receive an explanation of the University’s approach. They may find themselves in a traditional face-to-face classroom with a professor from a different college and peers from across the region, and even the world, all meeting, sharing and learning virtually.
Students, particularly those with low entrance qualifications, experience high drop-out rates, especially at the two-year mark of four-year programs. Extensive student support is available but the mission of reaching all who want to learn must always be balanced with concerns for quality and funding limits.
In creating the University structure, partner institutions lost autonomy. Each partner contributes to the costs of operating the University; as a counterbalance, they now have access to European Community funding previously unavailable.
Although programs in Further Education are audited and assessed with standard packages developed by the country-wide college sector, Higher Education offers more possibilities for new directions. When looking for training for business and industry, companies can be quite conservative, and it is up to the University to prove itself. Graduate apprenticeships are not as regulated as regular apprenticeships and offer potential for University-industry collaboration. It may also be possible for the University to develop courses for educational levels prior to post-secondary education that could be distributed directly to schools and homes.
While growth in registrations is substantial, the need now is to focus on quality and financial sustainability.
The new School of Health, Social Care and Life Sciences represents a major cultural shift, demonstrating what can be done only as a cohesive organization. The potential of this model is now being examined in such disciplines as engineering and information technologies.
For Further Information
Professor Crichton Lang
University of the Highlands and Islands
Dr. Gary Campbell
Dean of Science, Health and Engineering
Assistant Principal for Curriculum Enhancement
University of the Highlands and Islands