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University of the Highlands and Islands - Featured Study - April 2015

Linda Stewart, Director of European and International Development at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), tells us how UHI has benefitted from EU Structural Funds and EU competitive funding.

The University of the Highlands & Islands (UHI) is a new kind of Higher Education Institution model, meeting the needs of a rural, sparsely populated region at the north west periphery of the EU through a partnership ofUHI 13 Academic Partners.  EU funding, particularly through the structural funds, has played a major part in the development of this new kind of tertiary institution, contributing in no small way to the achievement of university title in 2011.  EU investment has also been a factor in UHI’s achievement of excellent results in the recent national Research Excellence Framework.

Synergies Between European Structural Funds and EU Competitive Funding

Synergy has been at the heart of UHI’s engagement, both chronologically through various programming periods and horizontally across different EU programmes.  The Highlands & Islands Objective One Programme 1994-99 supported considerable investment in basic learning infrastructure (estates and IT) for the new concept, which continued through transition and convergence funding in the 2 subsequent programming periods, based on the potential economic impact of a new university in remote rural and island communities which previously had no HEI located within its boundaries.  Over the years, ERDF and ESF investment in the UHI’s facilities, research capacity (kit, research staff and students), IT provision (including cutting edge use of technology in education to overcome barriers of distance), online course development and provision, as well as wider access activities.  This synergistic approach to structural funds, all aimed at the objective of achieving a university for the region, lead to UHI being awarded Strategic Delivery Body status, one of only 3 in Scotland, for the 2007-13 Highlands & Islands Convergence Programmes.

However, development of the new institution has also been supported through a variety of EU transnational programmes, including INTERREG (particularly the previous Northern Periphery Programme), EQUAL, SOCRATES, LEONARDO – and many others.  Such joint cooperative working has allowed UHI to take a broader perspective on its development, learning from similar institutions elsewhere – eg comparison with the Akademi Norr initiative in the north of Sweden, which also aims to extend higher education opportunities across a large, sparsely populate area.

However, at the start of the 2014-20 programmes, UHI – as one of the EU’s newest universities – is in a position to contribute something back from earlier investment from various programmes and the expertise it has allowed us to develop.

Marine Energy

One excellent example is in the marine energy sector.  The Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI (SAMS – one of UHI’s 13 Academic Partners) has been engaged in FP activity dating back to FP4 and has carried out excellent research with EU partners in various aspects of marine science.

These activities have also been supported through structural funds investment in facilities, equipment and research staff, with a successful business park now operating alongside SAMS UHI provision at Dunstaffnage - a small, rural location in the west coast of Scotland.

UHI UHI's and SAMS’s research capacity was further built up through the award of FP7 Regions of Potential funding for the MERIKA project on marine energy, working with other UHI partners at Lews Caste College in Stornoway and North Highland College in Thurso.  This has given UHI researchers the opportunity to invest in necessary equipment and work with leading EU experts in this important sector for Scotland’s - and the EU's - economic growth.

Such development has worked alongside the development of Argyll College UHI – another UHI partner concerned primarily with the provision of online learning opportunities at further and higher education levels.  Argyll College UHI has benefited greatly from ERDF investment in its learning centres and IT across this large geographic territory, coupled with ESF investment in online course materials and tutor support.

Together, SAMS and Argyll College UHI have been able to increase learner numbers in this challenging part of Scotland, providing more opportunities for school leavers to stay in the area and support for businesses through access to innovation and Continuing Professional Development courses.  This has had a significant impact on the local economy and has paved the way for future engagement in the marine renewables sector.

It is hard to over-estimate the impact of such provision on small, remote communities – enabled through a synergistic approach to EU investments right across the Highlands & Islands.

Contact: Linda Stewart