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Support for proposed college merger as initial consultation draws to a close

By Alan Hendry

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North Highland College UHI principal Debbie Murray.
North Highland College UHI principal Debbie Murray.

The first phase of consultation on the proposed merger of North Highland College and two others in the UHI partnership has concluded, with an assurance that "everyone’s views" will be taken into account.

Most respondents were supportive of the rationale for the merger between North Highland, Outer Hebrides and West Highland and the overall direction and vision for the proposed new college.

The respective governing bodies say they are "exploring an exciting new strategic development" which would see them merge into a single organisation.

Themes around protecting job security, avoiding centralisation, enhancing the student experience and protecting and enhancing Gaelic emerged during the initial consultation period, which included a series of stakeholder events and online surveys.

The feedback will inform development of the full business case for merger, which will be considered by the boards of management at each college next month. This will be followed by a 10-week period of public consultation, which will now start in August.

The timeline has been moved to allow "more robust scrutiny" of the business case and for "meaningful consultation" to take place with staff and students when they return after the summer break.

North Highland College has campuses in Thurso, Halkirk, Dornoch and Alness.

In a joint statement, the three principals, Debbie Murray, Sue Macfarlane and Lydia Rohmer, said: “We set ourselves an ambitious timeline for this project, but it’s important we take the time to ensure the merger proposal and business case is robust and the strategy and vision for the new college reflects the ambitions of our communities.

"By moving the next stage of consultation to after the summer, we can ensure that everyone’s views are heard, and that feedback is fully considered as part of a final business case that has the support of our boards of management and the communities we serve.

“By coming together as a single organisation, we can ensure a positive and more sustainable future for our colleges, and have the resilience, resources, talent and expertise to help lead the economic and social renewal of our region.

"In this way, we can fully realise the ambitions of our communities, and the opportunities available to us in our regions, particularly in relation to the blue and green economies and the sustainability of our communities.”

All three colleges say they experience similar challenges, including real-term funding cuts and a declining demographic.

The new set-up would create "an anchor institution of scale and impact" within UHI, supporting 9000 students and 600 staff in 20 campus locations.

The principals believe the new college would be better positioned to respond to the post-Brexit, post-Covid environment and achieve their net-zero ambitions.

The three colleges have said there will be no compulsory redundancies as a direct result of the merger, with all savings resulting from it being reinvested to strengthen teams, and that centralisation will be avoided through the introduction of local advisory committees.

Following the 10-week consultation, the full merger proposal and business case will be submitted to each of the college boards of management for approval. The business case would then require Scottish Government approval.

The project is working towards a proposed date of August 2023 for the new college.

A link to the initial consultation report is available here.

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