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Education / Funding model disadvantages island colleges such as UHI Shetland, principal claims

UHI Shetland principal professor Jane Lewis. Photo: Shetland News

THE PRINCIPAL of UHI Shetland has called for a different funding model for island colleges amid a financial crisis that will lead to the newly formed college losing a substantial number of staff.

Professor Jane Lewis said the current funding model for the university and colleges sector in Scotland disadvantages smaller rural and island colleges.

“The college is anchor institution for the islands – funding should not be based on the student numbers but on the role the college plays in the community,” she told Shetland News.

Professor Lewis added that the importance of having an institution such as UHI Shetland in the islands could not be overemphasised.

However, with flat cash settlements from the Scottish Funding Council, and a reduction in funding for colleges by eight per cent in real terms since 2021, the government was effectively downsizing the sector, she said.

“At a time you want to grow your economy, you need to invest in young people to get those good and well paid jobs,” Professor Lewis said.

Her intervention comes as UHI Shetland, only formed two years ago, seeks to make savings of £1.2 million by the end of this academic year to balance the books.

Having started life with a deficit of more than £2 million, Lewis said UHI Shetland has not stood still when it comes to improving its financial situation.

“In the two years since merger, every single vacancy we look at very carefully, we don’t necessarily replace like with like, and there has been quite a lot of change, particularly at the professional services side,” she said.

“We have an extremely small senior and middle management group in the college.”

Overall, the number of staff has already dropped from 135 at the time of merger to 120 now.

The principal said UHI Shetland was now working on a number of avenues to reduce the budget deficit, including

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  • “changing the conversation with the Scottish Funding Council”,
  • negotiating a better deal within the UHI network,
  •  talking to local partners such as the SIC and NHS in an attempt to gain additional support,
  •  restructuring UHI Shetland which will lead to the loss of jobs and services.

She said: “There is a period now for alternative [restructuring] proposals, we are looking to pull together the final proposal by the end of the calendar year.

“Whatever we do, it is fair to say, we will be losing a substantial number of staff, and we will be stopping delivery in some areas.

“What I don’t want to do at this point is to say it’s definitely this or it’s definitely that, because we haven’t come to that conclusion yet.”

Distant islands allowance

Meanwhile, seeking a different funding model needs to also include reimbursement for distant islands allowance payments which UHI Shetland pays to its employees.

When Shetland College, NAFC Marine Centre and Train Shetland separated from Shetland Islands Council and merged to become UHI Shetland in August 2021, distant islands allowance, worth around £300,000 a year, was lost.

UHI Shetland continues to pay the allowance which every civil service employee in the Scottish islands is entitled to, but any attempts to make this additional cost part of the government’s funding package has so far fallen on deaf ears.

“The distant islands allowance would be a massive and quick win in my view. It is not a new issue,” she said.

The Scottish Funding Council has been contacted for clarification on the distant islands allowance issue and for comment.

Meanwhile, there is no commitment from Shetland Islands Council to help UHI Shetland reduce its funding deficit.

Council chief executive Maggie Sandison said “UHI is an important partner for the council, and we have always worked very closely with them because skills and learning is such an important part of a positive economic future for Shetland.”

And she added: “It’s not an easy time for finding solutions to other people’s budget challenges.”

UHI Shetland is also seeking new non-executive directors as well as a new chair of its board of management

Outgoing chair Davie Sandison said: “The role of non-executive board member is pivotal in developing our strategic aims and in ensuring sound stewardship and best practice.

“We want to provide a high-quality experience for students and learners and ensure the student voice is central to decision making at all levels.”

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