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Student Investigates...Reaching out to a Dispersed Demographic

Saturday 30-04-2011 - 00:00

The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), Scotland’s newest university, consists of 13 academic partner colleges and more than 50 learning centres covering an area of over 17,000 square miles, from Sellafirth at the tip of the Shetland Isles to Campbeltown over 400 miles away in southern Argyll. Matthew Rathbone and Ciera Harvey, students at the university, take a look at the challenges faced by the University of the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association (UHISA) in representing such a scattered membership.

Perhaps the most unique quality of the university, in addition to its geographical remoteness, is the diversity of e-learning environments available to the students. The university takes advantage of the wealth of local natural resources available, online learning environments and high-definition video conferencing, as well as traditional face-to-face delivery, to create a unique educational experience.

Nathan Shields, President of UHISA, said: “UHI students have the opportunity to study in some of the best environments in the United Kingdom, from archaeology in the Orkney Isles, surrounded by some of the oldest and most historically important archaeological sites in the world, to a degree in adventure tourism management in Fort William, a town that is known as the outdoor capital of Scotland.” The recently acquired university title has been something the people of the highlands and islands of Scotland have been working towards since 1653. With it comes a raft of new prospects as well as challenges; not least creating an active university level students’ association that robustly represents students, many of whom hold different cultures, traditions, and even languages, over all 13 campuses.

UHISA was formed in 2003 and comprises an elected full-time president, vice president and an executive committee of 14 students. The two sabbatical officers can be based at any of the 13 academic partner colleges and, like many students’ associations, the two sabbaticals report directly to their executive committee. The executive committee is made up of 14 elected student representatives; one representative from each academic partner college, and one postgraduate representative.

Commenting on this, Shields said: “Having the students you represent and your executive committee spread over such a large area, as you can imagine, takes a bit of getting used to. The sabbaticals are expected to travel quite a lot, especially at induction, freshers, and for pre-election promotion.

“Luckily, we are able to use video conferencing on a daily basis to keep in touch with the executive, attend university meetings and carry out our business, which helps to keep the travel from becoming too ridiculous.”

Chris Talbot, Vice President of UHISA, added: “As well as being geographically dispersed, the UHI student population is not demographically traditional. The UHI has an above average percentage of mature, part-time and distance learning students as well as several niche areas, such as Sabhal Mór Ostaig; an all-Gaelic college based at Slèite on the Isle of Skye.

“This diverse range of students, cultures and languages provides UHISA with many challenges. One of my roles as vice president is to promote and facilitate clubs and societies, which has proved to be very tough, especially when trying to create clubs that operate over more than one campus.”

At the 2010 student council in November, students voted though a mandate placed upon UHISA to provide all communications as bilingual, with English and Gaelic text. There is also a movement in certain parts of the partnership to have UHI and UHISA promotional materials written in ‘Scots’; a Germanic language often characterised as being the Gaelic equivalent of lowland Scotland.

As it stands there are still a number of partner colleges, typically those which are located further north, which do not have a local students’ association, and therefore lack sufficient direct representation within UHISA. This has been seen as an unfortunate symptom of the previously mentioned challenges, and UHISA continues to champion the formation of local students’ associations across the partnership.

Shields added: “We see the local college students’ association as a fundamental part of the representative structure of the partnership. It has become clear that there needs to be a strong and proactive presence at each campus.

“Put simply, we can’t represent and interact with students as effectively as a students’ association based at an academic partner college when we are based up to 400 miles away. Any model that we adopt must transfer power and authority to the local level, while maintaining a crosspartnership focus.”

Reportedly, the main difficulty that has been identified while promoting students’ associations concerns individual student affiliation. Due to the unique organisation style of the UHI, there exists a dual identity, where some individuals will feel a sense of belonging to the specific local academic partner, such as Perth or Inverness college, and others with the wider community of the UHI as a whole. UHISA has stated that it is well aware of the challenges that it faces in its task of student representation for the UHI partnership, and has confirmed that it is currently undergoing a governance review in order to combat these areas of weakness.

Commenting on this, Talbot said: “The governance of UHISA, and the nature of its relationship with the university, partner colleges and partner students’ associations, has not historically been clearly stated. We began the process of governance review, following our November 2010 Student Council, to address several issues and to begin the process of looking strategically at the direction of UHISA.

“The review is still at an early stage, but there are already some very interesting ideas on the table in regards to the shape of UHISA in years to come.

“In the six months that the UHISA sabbaticals and executive have been in post, we have seen a dramatic increase in partnership working at the students’ association level. We have, for the first time as a partnership, taken part in a national campaign (the national demo), been nominated for two NUS Scotland Awards, and rolled out Student-Led Teaching Awards to all 13 academic partner colleges.”

The UHI has come to represent a lot of things to its students. Some see the UHI as an institution that offers a brighter future for themselves and those close to them; others see the UHI as a new and exciting opportunity to meet new people and experience new things.

To be a student at the UHI requires resolve, self-determination and motivation. It is an institution within which the students are encouraged to show personal intuition, both in their work and general life. Regardless of individual opinions on the methods and styles used by the UHI, one thing appears to be commonly understood among its alumni. The UHI offers its students not only the opportunity to better their academic qualifications, but also to better themselves as human beings, and to prepare themselves fully for the long road ahead.

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