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Michael Foxley: Highland college merger plans are ‘once in a generation opportunity’ to become a stronger voice for rural Scotland

Three colleges in the Highlands and Islands will merge under the proposals
Three colleges in the Highlands and Islands will merge under the proposals

The future of three key educational institutions in the Highlands and Islands will come under scrutiny tomorrow.

It’s the first public meeting to discuss the proposed merger of Lews Castle College UHI, North Highland College UHI and West Highland College UHI – all partners of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Following a detailed options appraisal in 2021, the proposal on the table is to merge the three colleges to form a new institution by January 2023.

This is a “once in a generation opportunity” to create a step change for what the new institution can do for the economy, employment, students and staff across the rural and island communities they serve.

Dr Michael Foxley

I’m pleased to report that the merger partnership board, which I chair, has already agreed three key principles for the proposals in that:

  • There will be no redundancies as a direct result of merger
  • The colleges will retain their local identities with no centralisation
  • Any savings identified will be reinvested in the new organisation

Those steps are significant, as are the views that the proposals can only really work if we have the ‘buy-in’ of those closest to the subject – staff, students, unions and stakeholders at all levels.

What would be the benefits of the merger?

From what was a powerful gathering of staff, students and board members at a visioning event back in September, we have created a consultation document.

That has been widely shared.

We are building on three individually successful colleges, each with their own strong brand and identity.

By coming together, we can ensure a positive and more sustainable future for our colleges.

I believe the proposals will deliver improved staff resilience with greater capacity by working in teams.

The existing staff structures are thin with little or no spare capacity.

The merger could also provide greater capacity for teams working in specific subject areas to ensure the best experience for our students.

West Highland College UHI in Fort William.

This would result in a more sustainable curriculum offer, with potential for new courses linked to the specific needs and opportunities in our rural and islands communities, including the Gaelic language and culture and the green economy.

This will help our students to gain the right qualifications for further study or employment, and will ensure businesses have access to a highly skilled local workforce.

‘A stronger voice for rural and island Scotland’

We will retain and improve our network of local college centres and have already created a working group looking at six significant estate developments linked to regional economic opportunities, creating more opportunities and better infrastructure for students, staff and our communities.

For communities this has to mean a strong local presence to better support local business needs and ensure all opportunities can be realised via local advisory committees linked to the work of the new board of the merged college.

We want to become a stronger voice for rural and island Scotland we will ensure that our needs are paramount in national discussions on funding of tertiary education – for example the ring-fenced national bargaining funding and rurality funding support.

Having worked closely with the three colleges as the UHI further education regional lead for the university for the past eight years, I was honoured to be asked to chair the partnership board created to oversee the merger development.

What we have now is a huge opportunity for those most likely to be affected by the proposals, to have their say in shaping the future of our colleges and the people and communities they serve.

Our intention is to be better, bigger and bolder together.

Dr Michael Foxley is chairman of the merger partnership board for Lews Castle College UHI, North Highland College UHI and West Highland College UHI.

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