A university program reflecting place

A university program reflecting place

Todd Walker, Principal, University of the Highlands and Islands, overseas a new university that is making important headway in the world of marine biology, studying the environment and Viking studies.


With your international experience, how do you view the Scottish higher education landscape, and system? What strengths and unique differentiation points can Scotland boast in your opinion?

Coming from Australia, I see Scotland as a wonderful place to be and work. It is about the same size and has about the same population as Victoria. It has many similarities, particularly in terms of the range of different types of universities and providers. My university is different from other universities in that it covers an extremely large geographical footprint. In fact, it is the largest geographical area of any campus-based university in the U.K. The size of our footprint is probably equal to that of Belgium. We cover the Highlands and the Islands as well as Moray and Perthshire. That is an extremely large geographical space.

The second thing for us is that we are both a tertiary institution, which means we are in the college sector and the university sector. There are a few of those across Scotland, but we are by far the largest. We combine further education, apprenticeships and traineeships with higher education which is undergraduate and postgraduate.

The third is that, as a function of those two, we have quite a large student body. We have about 33,000 students who study with us. One of the things we have just been through is getting a better sense of who we are and our geographical reach, but also what the future looks like. We are about to launch a new brand that coincides with the notion of us being both a further education provider and a higher education provider. We will be using the strapline “Where Learning Means More,” and, by virtue of that, we are more than further Ed and more than higher Ed.


You pride yourself on being different than the other universities of Scotland. How do you stand apart within the Scottish higher education landscape?

One of the things that separates us from other providers is the number of teaching sites. If we were not here providing further education and higher education in those remote places, by and large, those students would not have access to it. Hence, one of the things on which we pride ourselves is our access and widening the participation of students who might want to come and study with us. We do that across that big footprint, so whether you are in Shetland, in the Outer Hebrides, in the Highlands, or even in somewhere like Perth, we can cover that geographical space.

We try to align our courses and think about how we design our curriculum to the needs of those communities. We talk about it in terms of four words: transforming lives and building communities. That is effectively what we try and focus on from a university’s perspective. Essentially, we come to students, then students come to us.

The third point, which has helped us significantly during the COVID period, is that we are predominantly, but not exclusively, an online deliverer. We deliver much of our content, particularly in higher education, in an online environment which has been really useful across the pandemic. It has allowed staff to continue to engage students when we all went into lockdown. In fact, the transition was fairly seamless for students. In survey after survey, the students were really responding, saying they felt like they were getting the same student experience.


What are some of your biggest research fields and breakthroughs? Can you give me some examples of innovations from the university?

Any comprehensive university is going to have a research platform and ours is no different. Our research is innovation-led, and it is also predominantly around applied research. Hence, many of our researchers are solving real problems on a global scale. Whether they are social, cultural or economic, we are driving solutions to a number of those problems. As an institution, we are trying to focus on some specific areas, namely the blue economy and the green economy. We have several strengths in that space. SAMS, which is the Scottish Association for Marine Science, sits out at Oban is one of the world leaders when it comes to marine biology, the ecologies and aquaculture, and we have many students and postgraduate students there.

Another area of strength for us, particularly up in another one of our island campuses (Orkney) is study and research in the area of Viking studies. This brings students from all over the world. Of course, it has been popularized by different TV shows in recent years, but the Viking studies and the research that they have been doing up in Orkney, and also in Perth, has been going on for many years now. It has a critical mass of its own and they are doing some wonderful things in and around the understanding of Viking studies and the contribution that that has had to those communities. Finally, I would touch on history. We have a Centre for History that is growing. It has been around for a number of years, and it looks at a whole range of different areas in history.


How is the university working to try and build closer academic-industry relationships to close the gap that may exist between the corporate world and the academic or research world?

 Many of our research and teaching locations are collocated with industry or collocated where you might study that. Orkney was occupied by the Vikings for many centuries, and if you are studying archaeology there, in and around Viking studies, you are actually doing it in the location where the Vikings occupied for hundreds of years. Equally, if you are studying marine biology, aquaculture and the ecology of the marine floor of sea beds, you are doing so in Oban, which is wonderfully positioned in and around a whole industry built on the ecology of marine science. Essentially, you are a student who is studying and collocated in an area where your studies take you.

So, that is another point of difference we have—being able to collocate our students and our teaching with the industries in which they are embedded. That gives you a great connection between the industries. Obviously, industries and businesses want to work with you in developing curriculum, they want to access those students, and they want to teach those students. You have a living laboratory, a living teaching environment, or a living campus for those students. Students come to Scotland to experience that sort of lifestyle and it is simply wonderful that they are able to study or to do their research in those areas.


How are you working to expand your global reach to craft new partnerships and collaborations and to develop, for example, a student exchange program?

We have a small proportion of international students and in the iteration of the history of this institution it has not been a focus. It certainly has switched gears now. It is a focus for us to develop this in terms of its international strategy. By and large, the four percent of students that you see are postgraduate students studying history, studying marine science, and studying archaeology. This is great, because those students come from Europe, North America and elsewhere to study with us. But we have a unique selling point, which is the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In addition to that, we have an opportunity to draw students inbound. We call this an inward attractor for us. This serves to enrich two things: one is the student experience and the second is the staff experience. At the end of the day, staff love to have a diverse student body in front of them. We see it as a compliment that an international student would want to come and study with us and then use that credential or qualification as a global citizen to go apply the skills somewhere else.

Partnerships are certainly dear to my heart, and we will continue to advocate for them and foster them. We were one of the inaugural members of the Universities of the Arctic, which is a series of universities, and the contributions that are made concerning our research and our teaching goes back to COP26 and the impact that we have on environmental management and climate change.


Globally speaking, what is your strategy to grow the university’s image or its appeal to attract international students, but also professors, researchers and talent?

We have identified that the nature of us as an institution and our brand probably was not prominent enough. People can certainly identify with the words Highlands and Islands of Scotland, but they are not quite sure what that means. Therefore, we have finalized two years of market research and development to come up with a new logo, a new brand and a new strapline. Obviously, it is a new visual identity, and it will be launched on the 28th of March.

For us, it is about two things. It is about UHI, the acronym for the University of Highlands and Islands, and then it is about place. Hence, it is UHI Argyll, UHI Shetland, UHI Orkney, UHI Inverness. It is about celebrating and having a sense of pride in our place and where we see ourselves across the Highlands and Islands. Alongside that, we have that strapline “Where Learning Means More” because we teach in both further education and higher education. For us, that means we are more than just a university and we are more than just a college.

We are going to take that to the next level so show a real sense of pride in the place, whether it is Shetland or Orkney, where you are in the Highlands, or whether you are out to the Outer Hebrides. This will be a key feature of our marketing going forward and will reposition us in the market. It gives clarity, a sense of purpose to what we stand for. It will undoubtedly stand out against the other universities and that has been intentional. We want to attract students to come to study with us, but we also want to attract staff to come and work with us. That is an important aspect of building those communities.


What have been some of the key learnings or achievements that you have made, and going forward what would you like to achieve most in the next year?

Last month was my first year in my position. It has been a terrific year which has gone really fast because it is quite busy. One of the highlights has been getting out to all of the campuses, to meet people and be on the ground. I like to spend my time outside the office, meeting folks and getting a sense of the community and the way the contribution that that college or campus makes to the community. For me, it is about the people then the place. In many ways, given the ease of connectivity that we have at the moment, I can be anywhere and conduct business at the university, so being out and about visiting the length and breadth of the university has been a feature for that year.

In terms of challenges and opportunities, we are recovering from a COVID period, which has had a significant impact on the lives of individuals, staff, students and the way in which we operate our business, as well as being mindful of the pressures that students go through. They choose to study and do their courses with us. They are looking for a quality education and it is incumbent upon us to provide that. Likewise, many staff have had to endure hardships through this process as well: family members getting sick, having to work from home, having to maintain that quality provision for students, and doing so in a way that retains their mental health and wellbeing. That has been a lot of pressure for many people. There is a different sense of fatigue working in the pandemic than there has been prior to that. There is a sense of relief as we’re moving around and meeting people.

The next 12 months for us is about embedding that new visual identity and brand; celebrating who we are where we want to go; and setting a long-term direction for the institution and what we look like in 10 years. We are still a very young institution, celebrating 10 years last year. Hence, we are starting to have discussions now about what the next 10 years look like. Those are discussions that are driven by our board, our senior governance body. For me, it is about celebrating the successes of the past, but also acknowledging the opportunities for the future. To identify a few, obviously new fields of education, new fields of research for us, celebrating our new brand and the look and feel that sits around that, and embracing and supporting the growth and the economy of Scotland at the same time.


Do you have any final comments for the readers of Newsweek magazine?

UHI is open for business. It is growing and energetic and has the opportunity to provide a quality education for students, whatever their age, and whatever part of the qualification framework they want to tap into. It is an exciting time to be joining UHI as a student or a staff member.