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Education / Protesters take to the streets against possible UHI college cuts

A group of demonstrators marching on a street, led by a bagpiper, while carrying a banner for the further education lecturers' association advocating for unity and strength.

A SIZEABLE rally against possible UHI Shetland cuts took to the streets of Lerwick this lunchtime – with protesters gathering under the banner “college cuts kill communities”.

Protesters and supporters marched from Market Cross to Lerwick Town Hall to voice their opposition to UHI Shetland’s plans of approving potential budget cuts, which could lead to job losses and impact Shetland’s creative and educational sectors.

These cuts emerged in the latter part of 2023, followed by a campaign organised by the Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) branch at UHI Shetland to counter this proposal.

After a number of actions throughout the winter, including a student-led demonstration in December, a petition and information stalls held in the Toll Clock and Mareel, a rally was organised to show of support for staff and students before the college board meets to approve the final proposals relating to course cuts on 27 March.

The march set off at 12pm, to the sounds of a leading bagpipe, with a meeting point at Market Cross.

At the town hall, a number of speakers voiced their concerns and called on the Scottish Government to provide improved funding for the further education sector. Isles MP Alistair Carmichael tendered his apologies and let it be known that he shared the concern of those gathered.

Protesters gather outside Lerwick Town Hall. All photos: Dave Donaldson

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart was among those speaking at the event.

Many of those who came out on Saturday then followed an EIS-FELA invitation to Islesburgh for informal discussions, tea and home bakes.

“It’s fair to say that students and staff generally feel the same way about the college – so many students have benefited personally, socially, emotionally, mentally and educationally from courses attended at the college, largely due to lecturing staff,” said Andrew Anderson, EIS-FELA branch secretary.

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“For this reason, when these cuts were announced it was natural that staff and students would unite in opposition to them – we all know what Shetland may lose.

”The predicted outcomes of UHI Shetland’s plan include a budget reduction amounting to £1.2 million and the shedding of almost one third of all lecturers at UHI Shetland.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart addressing the rally.

According to the union, along with the job losses, the cuts could present further risks as the college is currently a major employer on the island, providing accessible further education for young people, securing long-lasting employment within the local community, and helping to tackle depopulation.

As a lecturer in the Center for Island Creativity in UHI Shetland, Roxane Permar spoke about the implications of potential cuts on creative industries in Shetland.

“I have devoted many years to fine art and textiles education here, and I am absolutely devastated to see all the wonderful developments wiped out because we do t have money,” she said.

Permar continued: “Shetland has a huge interest in the arts and culture, and I have witnessed the positive impact courses in art and design have had locally.”

As well as having detrimental effects on current students and lecturers, the proposed cuts are expected to also undermine the scope and quality of education for Shetland’s island community and endanger the viability of college education on the long term.

In response to these concerns, UHI Shetland said: “The financial position of the Scottish college sector remains precarious, with more cuts in 2024/25 with the budget proposing a revenue funding reduction to colleges of 4.7 per cent.

“In addition to increasing costs for ageing campuses, inflation and high energy prices, staff costs account for more than two-thirds of the sector’s expenditure.

By recognising that “colleges are of critical importance to Scotland’s people and the economy”, UHI Shetland is currently completing its proposal seeking to “minimise the impact on jobs through identifying additional funding for some activity” and to “mitigate any potential impacts for students by delivering courses remotely.

For the moment being, the college said current courses finishing this academic year will be delivered as planned and that it is committed to “supporting all students who are currently enrolled on longer courses to complete their studies”.

Final decisions about the proposed cuts will be taken at the end of this month.

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