Agility means survivability in the college sector.

Scotland’s colleges are, in many ways, the backbone of the modern workforce, but that workforce changes rapidly, and colleges need to keep up at every turn. They are also often described as anchor institutions for their communities, and that’s especially true of the colleges that make up the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

Each of the 12 partner colleges has its own community to represent, but also its own areas of specialisation and its own industry partners.

UHI Inverness principal and chief executive Chris O’Neil said that every academic year starts with a comprehensive review of industry, student and regional trends to build a curriculum with as much to offer as possible.

“We look at the expected growth in the Highland region, and that coupled with the 500 businesses we are working with gives us a fairly good insight as to how the curriculum should evolve.

“You can’t turn a curriculum on a sixpence, because you have some students that are bought into a curriculum for a four-year period. But you have to have a constant process of evolution.

“We are a demand-led institution and you have to constantly look at that demand.”

Read more: The State of Scotland's Colleges: Find all articles in the series here

Part of the review process is ensuring that programmes and courses run as efficiently as possible. This means that each year might see staff redeployment or the creation of entirely new courses, apprenticeships, or modules to match partner needs, student interests, and the college’s valuable frontline staff.

“I'm really, really proud of the way that my colleagues have looked at the efficiency and the effectiveness and most importantly, the relevance of the curriculum offer. Our planning process is unbelievably rigorous: it takes into account aspects of fixed costs, anticipated costs, the overhead top slice that we might need to pay the Executive Office.”

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It also considers student appetites and the needs of local industries. Although UHI Inverness may never compete directly with the University of Glasgow in terms of the scale of its engineering programme, for instance, the advantage of the college setting is the ability to meet a specific local need.

“We’ve got engineering companies within striking distance of this building. And we can talk to folks that might need half a dozen people. We’re really small, and I think that that gives us the flexibility to provide the level of sensitive service to the folk that we’re here to serve.”

Read more: Can Scotland's youngest college offer a roadmap to sustainability?

Carrie Higgins, Tertiary Education Leader for Technology, Environment, and Education at UHI Inverness, said that the college is in the middle of one of those transformations. The Scottish School of Forestry, located at UHI Inverness’s wooded Balloch campus, is on the verge of launching a new qualification that will allow students to work towards a degree while working in the forest industry.

The idea came directly from partners in the forestry industry, who she said at one point were so desperate for workers that they were recruiting students before they could finish their programme. The new graduate apprenticeship, she said, allows students to enter work without sacrificing their progress.

She said it’s a benefit of having good relations with industry partners, but it’s also a benefit of having university and college-level instructors on the same campus.

“I think people know that colleges are great at developing skills, and we know that universities are great at developing critical thinking and analysis. But being able to combine the staff as well as the pathways means that you can bring in the benefits of both.”

The Herald: Access to tools and simulated work environments are only a few benefits of college partnerships with industries.Access to tools and simulated work environments are only a few benefits of college partnerships with industries. (Image: Peter Jolly)

UHI Inverness’s more than 500 partnerships lead to new academic opportunities on campus and generate direct links to employment for students. Each year, graduates from a practical construction course built in partnership with the Civil Engineering Contracting Association (CECA) are guaranteed an interview with a partner employer.

Read more: Colleges are at the heart of UHI's founding and mission

But more than that, a piece of the partnership requires employers to maintain a 75% employment rate for successful candidates.

Adaptability still has its costs, however, and even campuses that are financially stable such as UHI Inverness are feeling the squeeze as purse strings tighten across the college sector. Inverness invests heavily in modern apprenticeships and graduate apprenticeships, which allow students to work while still earning college or even university credits.

The college's graduation apprenticeships have grown from 13 in 2019-20 to 97 this year, and UHI Inverness expects 384 new modern apprentices in 2024-25 after finishing this year with more than 600.

But these offerings require equipment, machinery, safety precautions, unorthodox classrooms, and, often, a great deal of space—none of which comes cheap.  

Read more: "UHI not going anywhere" despite sector funding crisis: Vice Chancellor insists

Professor O’Neil sees his job as the one at the bottom of the pyramid who has to balance the costs. Part of that includes an ongoing project to harmonise HR departments and software systems across the entire UHI partnership because, as he said, “it’s the duplication that’ll kill you.”

He said that no amount of cost-cutting should come at the cost of the college’s obligations to the community.

The college runs several programmes and initiatives to pursue that impulse. Following the pandemic, UHI Inverness began offering free breakfast and lunch to students and has served 92,000 free meals since March 2022.

Read more: One student chose to study from home and it's paying dividends for her community

They also have banks for free food and toiletries, a student book fund, laptop loans, and an online cooking club with free ingredients and interactive sessions to teach students how to prepare healthy meals.

The college’s LEEP (Life, Education, Employment and Personal Development) Ahead programme–winner of the Widening Access award at the 2023 Herald Higher Education Awards–helps to re-engage care-experienced young people with learning and employment opportunities.

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A recent inspection report described UHI Inverness as a cross-section of a health society. It was a proud moment for Prof O’Neil because he sees colleges as serving a significant pastoral role in society.

Part of fulfilling that role means having a place for anyone interested in attending.

“We have folks that come in who are dealing with a whole load of personal struggles.

“I think we’re only as good as a community or a society as the least privileged within it. And I think that education is part and parcel of that.”