Keeping the College fit for the future

Lews Castle College is starting to look ahead to its 70th anniversary which will fall in September 2023. At the same time, it is preparing for the biggest change it has contemplated in these seven decades – a potential merger with two other colleges.

By Brian Wilson
Monday, 13th December 2021, 1:14 pm
The college campus, located in the Castle Grounds, was significantly expanded in the 1990s with the inception of UHI
The college campus, located in the Castle Grounds, was significantly expanded in the 1990s with the inception of UHI

These two statements reflect the challenge of moulding a future while also being acutely aware of a past that remains precious in the psyche of many islanders. Expectations placed upon the College do not always reflect its current educational priorities while too little is known by the public of the extraordinary range of work in which it is now engaged.

Further education colleges have long impressed me as remarkable places of learning – under-recognised, under-valued and under-funded. While our great universities pay lip-service to “widening access”, FE colleges get on with the job of offering opportunities for everyone from youngsters with special educational needs to PhD researchers. All under one roof and all on budgets that universities would look down their noses at.

This is exactly what Lews Castle College does in microcosm. It is the problem of scale that has driven the moves towards merger with the West Highland College which serves the west coast in 13 centres from Ullapool down to Ardnamurchan, including Skye, and North Highland College which has centres in Thurso, Halkirk, Dornoch and Alness.

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In other words, it would become a single college covering a vast area and benefiting from economies of scale – not just in financial terms but also the scope and flexibility of what it could offer in an educational era where on-line teaching is going to be as important as physical location of either staff or students.

This vision for the merged college is set out in a briefing which launched a consultation process: “We have the chance to build a new strengthened and enhanced college capable of unlocking the incredible natural, social, human and economic capital in our unique areas and creating empowered and sustainable communities that offer a future to retain our young people and help attract new talent and investment.

“A college that could forge ambitious collaborations with schools, community, industry, enterprise and research partners at local and regional levels, but also have national and international influence and impact”. The merged college would also retain its Higher Education role within the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Sue Macfarlane, the interim Principal of Lews Castle College, says: “We lack capacity to do some of the things we would like to do and have ambition for. Together we would be a bigger player within UHI while retaining our local identities and doing a better job for our communities”.

She adds: “The sector is under-funded. We are not coming at this from a cost-cutting perspective but it is about doing more with what we have”. The consultation process will involve staff, students and other stakeholders in the three existing colleges. It is bound to produce some interesting debate and reflections about what communities expect from their colleges, in the future rather than the past.

When four pioneers got together in Stornoway 70 years ago, the challenge they faced was very different from the one that now exists but still required a comparable scale of vision. They had a crumbling building which nobody knew what to do with – Lews Castle. They had the constant reality of emigration by the young. And they had an enlightened understanding that Further Education in non-academic subjects could make a huge difference to island society, just as it was doing in post-war cities.

Out of these circumstances Lews Castle College emerged, initially with 83 students and nine tutors. The subjects it taught were those most directly relevant to a crofting, seafaring, weaving community which also needed engineers, mechanics, cooks and builders. Through the decades that followed, this was what Lews Castle College delivered to the great satisfaction of the places, businesses and people it served. To many, it is still a fair summary of what they associate with a local FE College.

Lews Castle widened its scope over the years but the great catalyst for change came in the 1990s as the UHI concept evolved, based on a network of existing FE Colleges around the Highlands and Islands, with Inverness as the hub. Lews Castle College was in the forefront of seizing the opportunities this unique framework offered, extending its campus and offering degree courses within the UHI network.

Sue Macfarlane says that the College’s early willingness to “really embrace” Higher Education as part of its role contributed to the “complexity” of the institution that exists today.

The College became increasingly ambitious in what it offered to students, and sought to draw them in from outside the islands. From most perspectives, that complexity is positive because it reflects the vast range of courses, qualifications and abilities that the College caters for.

But it all comes at a cost and it does seem remarkable that Lews Castle College offers all that it offers on a budget of £6 million, the vast majority of it in staff and estate costs. One of its financial handicaps is that it has to offer staff a Distant Islands Allowance for which it is not compensated, creating an additional annual cost of £300,000. That is a long-running and ongoing dispute with the Scottish Funding Council. The proposed merger will undoubtedly yield savings but with a commitment to re-invest them in educational provision.

So, for those who have not noticed its growth, what does Lews Castle College currently consist of?

For starters, it now delivers courses from four centres – the main Stornoway campus, Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy, the Benbecula Campus and a Learning Centre in Castlebay. When Cnoc Soilleir in Daliburgh is complete, it will become a fifth LCC/UHI location, run in partnership with Ceòlas and specialising in Gaelic music, language and culture.

The list of courses offered by the College is bewildering. Under the letter ‘A’ alone, you can find options as diverse as a National Qualification in Access to Merchant Navy Cadetship, a BSc (Hons) or MLitt in Archaeological Studies and a part-time course in At Home Skincare. Take your pick from these and hundreds more, many of them deliverable only through remote access. Space permits only a few highlights.

There are about 100 full-time FE students and more than 1000 part-time, some linked to Modern Apprenticeships – currently 50 in engineering and construction. Hospitality offers a direct benefit to the local economy. Sue says: “We have built that back up over the past two years under James MacKenzie because it is a critical employment area for the island. There are 20 full-time and part-time students and we have an agreement to train staff from Cala Hotels from January. We are opening a Training Restaurant in the College for students to work in”. And, of course, for the community to lunch in.

On the HE side an entirely new on-line Geography degree course designed by Lews Castle has just been introduced to the whole of UHI. There are engineering degrees and a Master’s course in Rural Sustainability. There is PhD level research in the Hydrogen Economy. Or how about the Music Degree course run out of Benbecula, entirely on-line? For the third successive year, final year students have given it a 100 per cent satisfaction rating in a national survey.

With so much emphasis on distance learning, it is appropriate that Stornoway has become the UHI-wide centre for Digital Pedagogy which means “the understanding of how you design and deliver learning for an on-line environment”.

Put all of this into another perspective. There are 5000 more students in Edinburgh University alone than there is population in the Western Isles. Yet the opportunity to study to advanced levels in this vast range of subjects has been created through Lews Castle College for £6 million a year. Many who may never step foot in the Western Isles will learn to the same levels from tutors based here. It is remarkable value for money!

Sue Macfarlane, originally from Yorkshire, has spent her career in education, mainly in the FE sector. She has been in the UHI network for the past 20 years, first at Perth College, then as depute principal of West Highland College before attaining the grand title of Director of Transformational Change within UHI. It was this role that first brought her to Lews Castle.

When the previous Principal, Iain MacMillan, retired, she was asked to succeed him on an interim basis to continue to deliver the change programme she had started. She agreed to stay for two years and that period will expire next September.

Her tenure so far has fallen within the pandemic period which has meant limited numbers of students on the campus. However, one of her missions is for Stornoway to give the feel of “a more vibrant student experience”. It may not be enough to retain school-leavers as they head for the city “but even if we don’t catch them for the degree, we might catch them on the way back for a postgrad course, or in the workplace”.

Another of her aims has been fulfilled – to put in place a senior management to replace those who retired over the past couple of years. Dr Barbara Keating, an engineer from Strathclyde University, has joined as Head of Curriculum; Kathleen MacDonald has moved from Western Isles Health Board as Director of Finance and Hannah Ritchie-Muir has come from Forth Valley College as depute principal.

Sue also wants to make clear that she should not be judged by her own job title. “I might be interim”, she says, “but I am totally committed. I want the absolute best for Lews Castle College as the local College for the Western Isles”.