Published: 15/01/2010 00:00 - Updated: 25/11/2011 12:06

Reversing culture of absent youth is James' principal goal

James Fraser, principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute.
James Fraser, principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute.

IF all goes according to plan, by the time he retires, James Fraser will have helped steer three colleges through the difficult transition to full university status.

However, though he has already seen Queen Margaret College in Edinburgh and Paisley College, achieve their goals, it is the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute, of which he is principal, that has the most personal significance.

A Highlander himself, James was brought up in the Wester Ross village of Inverinate and attended Plockton High School in the days when its head teacher was the great Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean.

Like all Highlanders of his generation, a university education meant leaving the area so in 1966, James left for Edinburgh.

"I'm not saying I wouldn't have gone away if there had been a choice, but one of the things I'm passionate about is that I want people to have that choice of staying and having their education here or of going away," he said.

"We need to reverse the culture that associated success with going away. There are 20,000 youngsters missing in the Highland economy and that's closely attributed to the lack of higher education."

James took over as principal on 1st October last year having previously been deputy principal and secretary.

He came to Inverness in 2002, having been secretary at the University of Paisley (now the University of the West of Scotland), which he had joined 14 years earlier when it was still Paisley College of Technology.

James played a major role in helping the college to achieve university status, having already been involved in a similar campaign in Edinburgh where he had been secretary of Queen Margaret's College.

"My arrival there coincided with the arrival of a new principal who was determined that we must make Queen Margaret's a university," he said.

"It took 20 years. It's a process that takes a long time."

It is a process which is also harder in Scotland than in England and requires the completion of two stages.

The first is the power to award its own taught degrees, which the UHI received in August 2008.

The second major hurdle, which is not required to achieve university status in England, is the need for a research department, but here too progress is being made. The UHI already has more research income than three existing Scottish universities.

There had been hopes full university status might be awarded as early as 2007, but the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) said more work was required.

However, James is determined to see full university status achieved on his watch with a target of spring 2011.

"I would expect to be in the job for four to five years and I don't want to leave until we get the university title," he declared.

However, though he would love to have the title quickly, James understands why the process takes so long.

"I want us to be seen to earn our place within the ranks of the other universities," he said.

"That's very important to me. My impatience to get there is tempered by the desire that people accept we are just as good as any other university in the land."

It may be as good, but the UHI's multi-centre approach with partner colleges spread from Argyll to Shetland makes it a very unique institution, one which has been held up as a template for other rural areas, such as England's University of Cumbria.

The UHI is already the biggest user of video-conferencing in the UK, and not just for lectures and tutorials. It is also an invaluable tool for James in his role as principal, though he also aims to visit each of the partner colleges at least twice a year.

"We have got to deliver everything that people need so they can stay in the area, but we don't want to be parochial," James said.

"We want to attract people from the rest of Scotland, Britain and overseas. We have courses that are unique, that come out of the environment, and these are the things that will attract people to the area.

"SAMS (the Scottish Association for Marine Science) in Oban is a leader in marine biology and education, not least because SAMS sits literally on the edge of the sea. You have really hands on learning in the right place."

Similarly, the UHI's Outdoor Adventure Management course in Lochaber was leading potential students to make the UHI their first choice on their UCAS form because it was the right degree in the right place, while Orkney's neolithic, medieval and more modern heritage made it an ideal location to study archaeology, James suggested.

The drive to full university status coincides with financially challenging times, James acknowledges, so he is also looking at ways of bringing in additional funding, including attracting students from the growing economies of China and India, though close cultural ties have already proven a draw for students from Canada.

He is also looking at ways of cutting costs by sharing support services, though this does not mean centralisation.

"We want to get higher education to where people are, not pull them into Inverness," he said.

However, James sees the prospect of university status combined with the creation of a new Inverness campus helping the Highland Capital become a thriving university town.

"The campus is a very important issue," he said.

"Our preference is Beechwood. It's got the attraction that it is close to the hospital, the Centre for Life Sciences and Lifescan. The campus will allow us the opportunity to offer the type of experience that other university students have with social and sports facilities as well as new facilities for teaching and research. It also offers the opportunity to develop a business centre.

"The other highly important thing is that we would be a very attractive campus to bring overseas students to. Overseas students are really quite demanding. They want to go to attractive facilities and with the new campus, we can offer those."

Living in Kilarlity with one of his two children still at home, James is well aware the attractions Highland life can offer, though he admits that Munro-bagging is not for him.

"It's a wonderful place to bring children up and a wonderful place to walk and think," he said.

"We have no problem getting new staff because this is increasingly the type of environment people want to work in.

"We can bring high value jobs and open opportunities for research that can bring the Highland economy on to another level.

"That's the kind of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning, being part of an organisation that has the power to transform people's lives."

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