You can’t overstate the importance of universities to the region’s economy. They attract and retain talent, particularly young people. They strengthen skills and expertise across the workforce, which helps attract inward investors. They employ people directly and indirectly, and they invest in capital and infrastructure.
Here in the highlands and Islands, the university sector is vital to numerous joint venture innovation and research and development projects that habitually lead to new commercial enterprises linked to the region’s specific characteristics. This makes for more resilient communities, particularly important in rural areas, and improves prosperity.
For these reasons, as regional development agency, our close association with the University of the Highlands and Islands dates back to its candidate status in the nineties, the growth of its 13 colleges and research centres and its 70 rural learning centres, through its giant strides to university status in 2011. Our unique strategic partnership remains as strong as ever and the tenth anniversary of that important milestone is certainly something to celebrate.
It’s a good time to reflect on the difference UHI has made in providing for the regional population and attracting students from elsewhere. It draws on the wealth of experience of local culture and geography that exists across the UHI college network.
We’ve seen new teaching and research in outdoor adventure, golf, psychology, digital health and computer science, as well as the transfer into the region of nursing and midwifery programmes. We’ve seen niche provision expand in areas such as sustainable rural development, Gaelic, archaeology, aquaculture and Nordic studies.
We’ve seen growing numbers of students take part in, for example, the marine science degree at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Argyll, and in the outdoor adventure programme at West Highland College UHI in Fort William. Let’s also remember the lure of archaeology in the Northern Isles. Many remain in the region after graduating, going on to support growing industries or start new companies of their own.
And this is only the start. UHI is instrumental in providing the knowledge, education and skills required for the further development of the region’s economy.
The many years’ experience the organisation has in using technology to deliver remote learning, paid unexpected dividends in 2020. As organisations closed while they adapted to a global pandemic, UHI easily shifted to online learning.
Together, we had invested in the School of Health, which created 15 research posts: a good example of the synergy between science/academia and economic development. This scientific and research capacity is now being applied in national efforts, with UHI leading a project to help NHS employees cope with the impacts of COVID-19.
Looking beyond the emergency, we’re seeing significant growth in manufacturing, life sciences, marine technologies, aerospace and engineering industries. This will change the makeup of our economy. The UHI has a crucial role in responding to such opportunities, providing education and research options linked to these industries and strengthening the workforce.
It is involved in more than ten regional growth deal projects, alongside HIE and other partners, including the include Life Sciences Innovation Centre in Inverness and Highland. Other growth deal proposals in the pipeline include the SAMS international research and development centre in Argyll, campuses in Stornoway and Shetland, and the aerospace and advanced technology innovation centre in Moray. These initiatives create high quality jobs and contribute massively to economic prosperity in all parts of the region.
I know UHI plans to build on its progress. While attitudes among young people towards the region appear to be increasingly positive, more than 2,500 people still graduate elsewhere every year. Many rural communities are particularly concerned about retaining young people. The UHI incentives for those who want to stay in the region, continue to be vital. Greater ability to ‘grow our own’ in professions such as health and social care will be equally important.
We certainly look forward to continuing our long-standing partnership with the UHI on these challenges, for the benefit of social and economic prosperity throughout the region for many years to come.