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Head of Highlands university forced to apologise after hailing end of ‘vanity courses’

UHI principal and vice chancellor Todd Walker.
UHI principal and vice chancellor Todd Walker.

The principal and vice-chancellor of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) has apologised following an interview in which he said he wanted to see the end of “vanity courses”.

Todd Walker made the U-turn after facing criticism for the comments.

Mr Walker recently moved to Inverness from Australia to take up his new role at the university.

In his first interview since arriving in Scotland, he said the focus of the university’s teaching should be related and limited to sectors that are currently growing in the economy.

So-called “vanity courses” refer to subjects that do not relate to any direct emplyoment.

He told the Inverness Courier: “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.

“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.”

Backlash

Mr Walker received backlash on social media following the interview, with many academics in the targeted sectors feeling that his words discredited their area of expertise.

Academic Richard Irvine took to Twitter to say: “As an academic who collaborates with brilliant staff at UHI, and has developed projects that have won funding for UHI, the shocking attitude betrayed in this article leads me to worry that collaborations with UHI for future funding are likely to be undermined by senior management.

“The vice chancellor has fatally undermined the institution he has set out to lead – not only in the face of his staff and students, but also in the face of academics at other institutions who will now look at UHI and question the viability of future research partnerships.”

Current students at the university studying so-called “vanity courses” spoke of the positive impact that choosing to do so has had on their lives.

One said: “I too I am studying a ‘vanity course’ at UHI, and it’s been the most positive career/life move I’ve made in years. It’s things like Gaelic and archaeology courses that make UHI so special, and to deny anybody access to that should outrage us all.”

Another also shared their opinions on social media, stating that university is for more than making money.

They said: “That statement from the new UHI boss is shocking. What is a ‘vanity’ course? Gaelic courses? Cultural courses? Drama and the arts? Forestry and agriculture? Basically anything in vocational studies and the arts?

“Universities aren’t for boosting the economy; they’re for learning.”

“I am sorry for any confusion”

Following criticism, Mr Walker has issued an apology on the UHI Twitter page.

In it he says he feels that his words were not correctly portrayed and apologised for any harm done through this misconception.

He also addressed the fact that some had expressed worries that there was some form of “hidden agenda” to cut courses.

He said: “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. I am sorry for any confusion or distress this has caused, that was never my intention when I agreed to give the interview.

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

“As you know, we lead the field and have 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.

“Learning in all its forms is transformational and our university has a responsibility to continue to provide education to our communities. I look forward to working with you all as we develop and grow our university.”

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