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LONGER READ: Distinguished Australian academic marvels at the potential of the north of Scotland as be takes over as new leader of the University of the Highlands and Islands

By Alasdair Fraser

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Professor Todd Walker, UHI’s principal and vice-chancellor.
Professor Todd Walker, UHI’s principal and vice-chancellor.

A vision of a curriculum intricately aligned to industry and employers’ needs will inform future strategy at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

That is the pledge of the distinguished academic now leading the 40,000-student further and higher educational institution as principal and vice-chancellor.

In a first interview since setting foot on Scottish soil in July, Professor Todd Walker, an experienced Australian educational leader, declared that the days of UHI "vanity courses" were over.

To that end, a curriculum review has been set in motion that will see him liaise closely with employers, innovators and decision-makers in established and emerging sectors.

The aim will be to sharpen UHI’s offering for the good of students and to help nurture and feed growing areas of the Highland economy.

On first taking the post in February, the professor turned night owl while working half a world away at sun-kissed Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales coast.

While the hard work began immediately, the extreme remote-working scenario held back the building of closer relationships, both within UHI and elsewhere in the Highlands.

Now settled in the correct hemisphere, the former provost and deputy vice-chancellor of University of New England said: "The university has started a curriculum review to examine, among other things, workforce alignment and demand. The review is in its early stages and will take two to three years.

"For some kids, their biggest ambition is to escape. We want them to find opportunities to stay in their home city, town or village. It is about training talent to retain talent.

"One of the biggest focuses in 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."

Renewables, at hubs like the Port of Cromarty Firth, is one area abuzz with potential, but only one.

"Seven or eight different sectors are starting to grow," he said.

"That’s one of the great things about Scotland at the moment. You can start to see this energy coming back into the economy, built around different industries.

"Our role – and we have a duty of care – is to provide the workforce of the future to help fuel that growth."

Having worked in multi-campus, regional universities in Australia for more than 20 years, Prof Walker (57) understands the challenges facing technologically advanced, geographically challenged institutions like UHI.

An accomplished clinical cytologist with a strong teaching, research and consultancy background, he has a first-class honours degree in medical biotechnology and PhD in molecular oncology.

He has a passion for "regional communities, the power of place and the quality of student experience" in tertiary education.

While life was idyllic by the beach at Coffs Harbour, 500 miles between Sydney and Brisbane, Prof Walker’s working day began at 5.30pm and ended at 2.30am. The peculiar novelty of taking the family evening meal as pre-work breakfast wore thin.

“It was something I, and the family, adapted to, but I’m glad it is over!” he said.

He will now lead a three-month tour of all college and teaching locations. Meeting industry leaders is also high on his priority list.

"With 13 colleges across the Highlands and Islands, Moray and Perthshire, our footprint is a third of Scotland," he said.

"That’s an enormous responsibility, particularly with students who might not otherwise go to a university or college. I want to use our 10th birthday celebration to really think about our vision, brand and mission over the next five years.

"The communities we serve will start to hear more of our narrative. It is about getting a sense of momentum back into UHI after Covid."

Soaking up his new surroundings with relish and fascination, he and wife Jayne – who have two grown-up children – settled in quickly, helped by some Aussie-style barbecue weather.

It was love at third sight, having previously visited as a young backpacker and then as inquisitive academic.

"The easiest thing is talking to Highland people," he said.

"The hardest is getting pronunciation right. I only just found out that I’ve been saying Avoch completely wrong.

"My neighbour and I have formed a friendship. He, in his thick accent, says ‘hiya!’ to me and I return a ‘g’day!’

"That’s the beauty of moving to another country and culture. It has been an incredibly warm welcome."

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