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Education / Students largely keen on college merger, councillors told

An archive image of the UHI Shetland Lerwick campus. Photo: Shetland News

Students largely keen on college merger, councillors told

STUDENTS in Shetland are generally supportive of plans to merge the isles’ tertiary education sector – but some are unsure over the proposals, according to the findings of a recent local consultation.

There is a “strong desire” within staff, meanwhile, to get the merger done and dusted after being in the pipeline for more than eight years.

A full report on the consultation went in front of Shetland Islands Council’s college board on Tuesday morning, with elected members giving it their approval.

A virtual questionnaire and online meetings were undertaken mainly with staff, students and stakeholders around the plan to merge Shetland College, NAFC Marine Centre and Train Shetland into one organisation.

The draft consultation report said students saw benefits in shared resources, while it was their view that it would be simpler have one point of contact.

“There was concern regarding space for some subjects and a wish for a purpose built college in town,” the report added.

“There was a wish for wider access to postgraduate courses and opportunities on Shetland and that the new college should seek to recruit more students to the islands.”

Students also said they wished to have a “greater voice” in the college, with “inclusion, progression and accessibility” key components of how they want the student experience to look like in the future.

Sixty nine per cent of students said they supported the merger, but only around 20 students past or present answered the survey.

For staff, the uncertainty over the time the merger remains a key issue.

They also said that having a single college would give the sector a “stronger voice” – both locally and nationally.

“However, the dangers of losing (or diluting) existing specialisms, identities and recognition were also mentioned,” the report added.

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Almost two-thirds of all responses to the consultation questionnaire mentioned financial benefits to the merger, while there were differing views on the legal status of the organisation.

The process is expected to save Shetland Islands Council money, with the local authority currently operating the college and Train Shetland.

Concerns over the proposed name Shetland Institute UHI were also highlighted in the consultation.

Jacqui Birnie, who helped put the report together, confirmed that there would be a further survey with staff and students on the name soon.

She added that suggestions for change and improvement in a merged college would be “noted and will be further explored”.

A total of 153 responses were obtained from the online survey, while there were nearly 30 meetings with stakeholders.

Birnie also told the college board that the timing of the consultation and coronavirus “was not ideal”.

There were few questions or comment at Tuesday’s virtual meeting, although south mainland member George Smith warned that the merger business case needs “real life examples” to back up the views expressed in the consultation.

“But I think it gives a good foundation to develop some of that further work,” he said.

As well as being presented to the college board, the consultation report is also being shown to the Shetland Fisheries Training College Trust, which runs the NAFC Marine Centre.

It will then be presented to the college merger’s transition board tomorrow (Wednesday) before being submitted to the UHI and Scottish Funding Council.

The merged college is expected to launch immediately prior to the start of the 2021/22 academic year if it receives approval in the Scottish Parliament.

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