How will house design respond to the ‘new normal’ after COVID?

With many employees reporting they would like to continue working from home after lockdown restrictions ease, Mike Bassett, an architectural technology lecturer at Inverness College UHI, explores how COVID-19 may change house design of the future.

Our lives have changed so much in the last year, changes which will permanently affect our approach to work. Working from home is likely to become an integral part of how many of us will spend our time, so how can we ensure that we separate our employment from our family lives?  The way we use space at home will become fundamental to remaining effective in our work and keeping a positive work/life balance.

House design must respond to the changing face of employment. A space which can be dedicated to work requires a quiet environment with natural light, heat, ventilation, high speed broadband and sufficient spatial separation so that we can focus our minds. Most of us have muddled through the current COVID crisis without many of these. The kitchen table has become the office, but with kids and dogs running around, doorbell and telephone interruptions, ad-hoc IT arrangements, these are not long-term solutions.

Most people cannot move house to solve these problems, so the solution must often be found within the existing home accommodation with minimal compromise to the domestic arrangement.

It is likely then that the architectural design and construction industry will be called upon to create innovative solutions which are constrained by the existing building fabric, space and services. The design skills of these professions must include a good understanding of how new technology can be implemented practically and cost-effectively. And building technology will continue to develop and expand in response to this demand.

This places a responsibility on the architectural profession to remain current and authoritative through education, training and continued professional development. Our architectural technology courses at Inverness College UHI provide this service, enabling students to gain their qualifications each year.

But there are other things that all of us can do ourselves to make worthwhile improvements. 

As long as an appropriate, dedicated space is available for home-working, we can improve our environment with some targeted changes. Ensuring that our home is easy and affordable to keep warm is a major factor. Adding loft insulation, draft-proofing external doors, replacing old single-glazed windows and updating to a modern efficient boiler will all make a huge difference. These changes will make your home more comfortable and provide usable working space, but will also save you money on your heating bills. There may also be financial assistance available to help cover some of the costs.

If an appropriate space cannot be found within the house, there are solutions available which can provide dedicated home office facilities in a modern, modular building located in the garden. In many cases this will provide a ‘turn-key’ ready solution and may be within ‘permitted development’ meaning that planning consent does not have to be sought.

As with any changes you make to your home, make sure you get expert advice first.

Reflecting on interdisciplinarity at the University of the Highlands and Islands

When the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership was awarded university title in 2011, Professor Meg Bateman, a writer and senior lecturer at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, composed the celebratory poem, Let the Northern Land Shine. Ten years on, Professor Bateman, reflects on the development of the partnership and collaboration across its sites and subject areas.

Ten years ago, Alison Lochhead kindly asked me to write a poem to mark the University of the Highlands and Islands becoming a university. I was inspired. I saw our thirteen colleges like a constellation, pulling together an area that had become fragmented and demoralised by emigration, two world wars, distance from centres of power and the brain drain of its youth. 

It wasn’t always so. It appears that the wider culture of building stone circles, and thousands of years later of building brochs, was initiated in the north of Scotland and moved south. Pictish, Gaelic and Norse culture had probed the land mass and aligned peoples with various centres of power, among them Burghead in Moray, Finlaggan in Islay (and Greece in the imagination), Orkney and Shetland, the Hebrides and Man. Far from the sea being isolating, it was enabling: of trade in gold from Ireland, wine from Spain and pigments from the Middle-East and of salvation as monks sailed to islands as far as Iceland and possibly even as far as Greenland and Canada, on sea-roads later extended by the Norse. Place-names too reveal a palimpsest of linguistic, religious, fiscal and topographic connections.

How wonderful that after generations of the young being ‘educated out’, it is now possible not only for students to remain on their native turf, but for the Highlands and Islands and its populations to become the beneficiaries and frame of reference.

By some alchemy of the ancient and modern, it is remarkable in our current environmental crisis that Gaelic poetry, lore and crofting offer a useful paradigm of man’s respectful and reciprocal relationship with nature (and there is archaeological evidence of this relationship being far older than Celtic civilisation). While the poetic trope of nature’s fertility being dependent on her satisfaction with her mate might be taught at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, its practical ramifications are manifest in the research on renewables in Shetland and Orkney and on the health of the sea at SAMS. It is often along such interdisciplinary fault-lines that understanding bubbles up. 

I teach six hours of grammar a week before embarking on literature, philosophy and what-not. I undertake this attention to detail gladly: it feels like combing the hair of the language. But over and above that daily practice, I want to describe the satisfactions of interdisciplinarity in my involvement with cultural studies and the Institute for Northern Studies in Orkney College, much of it in co-operation with that powerhouse, Donna Heddle. First we wrote a course looking at the medieval literature of the Highlands and Islands in five languages (I handled one). Then she asked me to write ‘The Gaelic Legacy’, a core module for the MLitt in Highlands and Islands literature. In this, I tried to present the most interesting and salient aspects of Gaelic culture to post-graduates of other disciplines, for example, history, psychology, theology and geography.

The results were startling. An American student wrote an essay comparing Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fenian band to a brotherhood of Vietnam war veterans, proud bikers on the edge of society. Instantly she had imbued these medieval tales and ballads with contemporary social and creative relevance. Another student looked at the archetype of the sovereignty goddess, who is both destructive and nurturing, as a precursor of the female warriors of modern animations.

The module is now taught by Iain Mac a’ Phearsain while I have a hand in supervising theses. We both feel that seeing Gaelic culture through the prism of other disciplines and vice versa has afforded us some of the deepest insights of our careers. Supervision has taken me where I would never have gone alone. My delight in selkie stories was challenged by their analysis in terms of toxic masculinity and rape apology. This year a student is showing how subjecting several Highland novels to a Jungian analysis can reveal and perhaps resolve some of our current social conflicts.  While I have been to the City of Dreadful Night with another student, I have also seen the bareness of Hoy as key to the numinous in the writing of George Mackay Brown and in Sylvia Wishart’s art.

It is a privilege to work with this institution whose backdrop is the physical beauty of the Highlands and Islands and whose work feels like a slowly opening flower – let’s say my favourite, grass of Parnassus, which grows locally in acidic soils, delicate, green-veined and honey-scented.

It is essential that we talk together more, our focus, the characteristics and inhabitants of the land, skies and waters, their ecosystems and their cultures, past, present and future.

How promising to hear our new principal Todd Walker say that Gaelic is what most excites him about coming to the University of the Highlands and Islands. Good man!

Gender equality in education: what are the challenges and how do we overcome them?

Ahead of our International Women’s Day event, we asked speakers and colleagues about their thoughts on gender equality in education.

Alex Walker, Professional Development and Recognition Lead, University of the Highlands and Islands  

The University of the Highlands and Islands is holding an International Women’s Day event to explore gender equality in education. The event will provide an opportunity to reflect on the way societal contexts and inequalities impact our student and staff groups and to identify what can be done to champion equality across our partnership.

For example, COVID-19 has impacted on all our lives, but especially on young people and on women. Those under 25 are twice as likely to work in a shut-down sector than those over 25 (Blundell et al) and women are more likely to have taken on extra caring and domestic responsibilities, with mothers spending on average two fewer hours doing paid work and two hours more on housework and childcare compared to fathers (Andrew et al).

This has particularly impacted BAME women, with a recent study finding that 45.5% said they were struggling to cope with the different demands on their time, compared to 34.6% of white women and 29.6% of white men.

There are clear implications for women staff and students working and studying at universities in this time of crisis. It’s important we reflect on the pandemic’s impact on women and how we can harness existing networks to provide spaces to share experiences around these challenges.

Ash Morgan, Highlands and Islands Students’ Association Vice President for Further Education

One of my personal bugbears in the further and higher education sectors is the lack of support and recognition offered for the extra burden placed upon people who study and additionally have caring responsibilities. This can hugely affect a person’s ability and capacity to study.

We know that caring is often a silent or hidden responsibility. It is often an unpaid position, done through love and, more often than not, falls to the women of the world. This year I wish to celebrate all women studying who have caring responsibilities on top of seeking out an education.

Tracy Kennedy, Humanities Lecturer, Inverness College UHI

There are studies showing that female academics are coping with extra pressure and sacrifice in the current pandemic. There was one female academic, for example, who asked on Twitter whether 4am to 6am was an appropriate time to be recording lectures. She is not alone. Female academics and students are often the ones home schooling or looking after very young children as well as working/studying.

In a recent class, I had an additional student (a four-month-old) who was not well and was being comforted by her mother while mum was trying to complete her work. I also teach a mum who has two lovely, lively boys, both under school age, who demand attention from their mum and have often joined in lectures! This has, of course, led to extra stress and strain as these, and all the other amazing mothers out there, try to work, study and teach their children at the same time.

Dr Natalie Jester, Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology, University of Gloucestershire

Gender-based inequality still pervades further and higher education; whilst awareness has definitely improved in the last few years, this alone will not be enough.

An important starting point is to ask who holds the (top) jobs and who gets the grant money. Rollock finds that there are only 25 Black female professors in the UK, for example. A feminist approach to education means ensuring that all marginalised groups get a seat at the table and, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is arguably more important than ever because marginalised groups suffer a disproportionate burden.

Women – who often have primary responsibility for childcare – suffer disproportionately, with much less time for research (Smith and Watchorn), whilst Morgan makes the case that BAME staff (his own framing) are often more precariously employed and, as a result, more likely to lose their jobs during the pandemic.

The equalities impacts of COVID-19 are vast and still being explored. Further thought needs to go into examining this intersectionally, however, otherwise we risk shutting out people multiply marginalised by gender, ‘race’, class and/or disability.

Donna Clark, Human Resources Systems and Records Manager, University of the Highlands and Islands  

I recently saw a reference that described the past year as ‘the corona-coaster’ and that is certainly apt. It has been a relentless and dizzying rollercoaster of continuous change and adjustment amidst the full spectrum of human emotions. It has been the most challenging year of my career.

COVID has pushed the boundaries of leadership and management and highlighted how important it is to have a strong organisational structure in place. People management (also referred to as line management) can often be seen as an ‘add-on’ to someone’s role, almost an afterthought, but I believe that people management should be recognised as a job in itself. These skills help to cement the stability of an organisation and are essential at a time when many employees are feeling isolated and overwhelmed.

Training, mentoring and other forms of support can be invaluable in helping to develop those who have people management responsibilities, but perhaps we need to stop and rethink how we view people management as part of the wider organisational structure. Are we prepared to recognise it as a job in its own right and not just an ‘add-on’? COVID has provided an opportunity to push this question further up the agenda.

Keith Smyth, Professor of Pedagogy, University of the Highlands and Islands  

In advancing gender equality in education, we need to recognise the means through which the male voice has been the privileged one within the academic and related work of educational institutions. Historically this has included the technologies of printing and publishing being harnessed by male-dominated organisations, to distribute knowledge produced predominantly by males who were already in privileged positions. This links forward to the dominance of the male voice in learned societies, on journal editorial boards and within the structures and hierarchies of universities.

However, there are a number of approaches through which we can take directed action in tackling these and the myriad other ways in which women’s voices have been marginalised and underrepresented in learning and teaching, research and professional practice. Male colleagues who recognise this can have an important role to play in supporting the amplification of women’s voices in education, including through gender-balanced approaches to curriculum design, scholarship and research, and to supporting women in educational leadership.

Health libraries’ vital role in supporting the COVID response

To mark World Book Day on Thursday 4 March, Rob Polson and Chris O’Malley highlight the contribution the Highland Health Sciences Library is making to the COVID-19 response.

The Highland Health Sciences Library is one of thirteen libraries spread across University of the Highlands and Islands partnership. The facility is based in the Centre for Health Science in the grounds of Raigmore Hospital, although staff have been delivering services remotely in recent months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As well as serving university students and staff, the library, along with Lorn and Islands Hospital Information Service and Library in Oban, also provides support to NHS Highland health and social care staff. Our work aims to ensure that students and health care staff have access to up to date evidence-based information so they can provide patients with high quality health care. Generations of student nurses, doctors and allied health professionals have passed through and used the service to become managers and experts in their field.

Library staff have made many contributions to consumer health information, both at home and abroad over the years. We have helped to set up and support the specialist Scottish Toxoplasmosis and Lyme Disease laboratories in Raigmore and, further afield, we have contributed to the development of mental health services in Ghana and Zambia and helped with child health in Amazonia.

Historically, the Highlands is the home of some significant and noteworthy health innovations. The Highlands and Islands Medical Service, the model for the current UK NHS service, originated in the area. With the development of accessible electronic resources in the 1990s, the Highland Health Sciences Library was one of the main proposers of an electronic repository of books, articles and professional development materials – making them accessible 24/7, irrespective of staff location. This proposal initially became the NHS Scotland eLibrary and has since developed into the main clinical and educational knowledge support tool for the NHS in Scotland.

In essence, we are here to link people with evidence, so they can conduct evidence-based education, research and practice in health sciences. Traditional forms of this work involve developing collections of resources like books on shelves and, more recently, electronic journals, eBooks and other online resources. We also teach staff and students how to find evidence for themselves and we collate material for those who are short on time, those working on high quality academic research and practice, and those providing specific clinical care.

During COVID-19, the library has been working closely with NHS Highland’s public health department. We provide information to help the department plan for dealing with the pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, health services had to act quickly and didn’t really know what was going to happen. We set up alerts to help model how the virus would develop in the area and how best to deal with possible scenarios. Alerts were also set up to deal with specific problems resulting from treatments, for example, how to support the psychological needs of people leaving intensive care. We continue to set up alerts as things progress, including information on how best to deal with the long COVID legacy. Ongoing horizon scanning of how the virus is developing also allows the department to plan for contingencies, such as the problem of vaccine hesitancy – the reasons behind refusing vaccination.


Image: WHO/ Sam Bradd


Feedback from this work indicates that the library service is seen as frontline. It allows public health professionals to focus on their decision making, with the library service providing condensed, best evidence in a manageable controlled flow – gifting time to staff and increasing the value of their work. In addition to this, the library has contributed to developing similar sets of resources for NHS Scotland and has fed into the COVID-19 work of the World Health Organisation.

In preparation for the next pandemic, this element of providing condensed best evidence in a manageable, controlled flow using artificial intelligence and machine learning is being looked at as a project in the university’s computing department.

Libraries play an important role in saving their users money and time. A study by the Highland Health Sciences Library showed that staff could save an average of six hours per query by using the service. This equates to a saving of £200 per query for their employer.

Stereotypes of what we do in the library, like a librarian as someone who stamps books in and out all day, are outmoded now. Our real role is supporting the wide information needs of our varied user groups across the university partnership and NHS Highland.

In this maelstrom of change, the goals, strategies and standards of academia and health sciences remain the structural underpinnings of the ‘who,’ ‘what,’ ‘why,’ and ‘how’ of what we do. The ‘where’ has changed for now in these COVID times, but we have adapted and continue to support the needs of those the service is designed to support.

Rob Polson and Chris O’Malley, Specialist Librarians, Highland Health Sciences Library

Student centred fair assessment approach to help those impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic

Rhiannon Tinsley, Academic Registrar at the University of the Highlands and Islands outlines the latest student support measures being adopted to ensure a fair and consistent approach to assessment for all higher education students whose studies have been adversely impacted and affected by the pandemic.  

The University of the Highlands and Islands partnership is committed to ensuring continued fairness in our assessment processes for our students during this unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. Thanks to our dedicated staff’s existing expertise, knowledge and practical skills we have been able to enhance the delivery of our courses through our distinctive and innovative approach to blended learning and support our students, whilst adapting to changing government guidelines.   

That said, we continue to identify and seek to move promptly to address the recognised extra challenges now facing the education sector. And the university partnership, which covers the largest geographical area of any campus-based university or college in the UK, making it essential to have in place a flexible policy framework that recognises individual circumstances.   

Further education students  
We are committed to assisting further education students complete their courses and will be advising directly through local engagement at our colleges.  If you have any have questions about assessment they should be discussed with your personal academic tutor/learning development adviser or equivalent. 

Higher education students 
Together with representatives from the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association, the university’s team responsible for academic quality matters, has now carried out a review of our policy on principles for fair assessment [for higher education students] which takes into account the impact of COVID-19 on student assessment and the regulatory requirement to meet academic standards and quality expectations.   

The review identified a supplementary range of additional assessment support measures for use during the pandemic. The recommendations were agreed by the university’s partnership Principals, with the application of support measures to be determined by the level of study, and the course that a student is enrolled on.  

Engaging with students  
Course leaders are already in regular contact with their students, and these principles provide a framework within which they can talk to their students about the assessment arrangements on their course and an opportunity to ask questions about their individual circumstances.  

Our strength in delivering through blended learning is the support available from local student services, and as always, students can contact the support staff at their local academic partner to access a range of support or press the red button.  

How have the principles been developed?    
Our principles for fair assessment are aligned with the national Quality Code for Higher Education, the current guidance from the Quality Assurance Agency, and the statement from Universities Scotland on Maintaining Fair Assessment
 
These principles will support students in their learning journey and take into account the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate these as far as possible, while maintaining the academic standards of our qualifications. 

The University of the Highlands and Islands partnership will aim to: 

  • enable students to complete their qualification or progress to the next stage of their studies. Wherever possible, progression and award decisions will be made within normal timescales 
  • maintain the academic standards of our awards, and the value of our qualifications to students, graduates and employers 
  • award credit and qualifications consistently to recognise student achievement 
  • continue to meet the accreditation requirements of professional, statutory and regulatory bodies, where relevant 
  • make assessment decisions that are fair and students are treated consistently 
  • continue to provide opportunities for assessment at all levels, using alternative assessment arrangements where necessary. If circumstances prevent delivery of some course elements, students will not be academically penalised 

Student partnership  
We are committed to improving the student experience in partnership with the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association.  This year’s student partnership agreement was signed at the HISA student conference in January, with engagement with students on changes as a result of COVID-19 a key priority.  

Flo Jansen, President of the Students’ Association said:  

“We have been fully consulted throughout the development of this policy and reached a conclusion that the agreed measures outlined in this statement sufficiently mitigate against the impact of current circumstances in a fair and equitable manner. Some other universities have put in place what is being referred to as ‘no detriment’ policies, this toolkit of approaches to fair assessment is believed to be a more suitable approach to meet the needs of University of the Highlands and Islands higher education students.” 

For more information visit https://www.uhi.ac.uk/en/students/support/coronavirus-covid-19/  

The one thing we can hug | A poem inspired by mood boosting trees

As the pressures of lockdown continues, advice on how to take care of your mind – look after your mental wellbeing – as well as your body, is fortunately becoming more and more visible and available.   

Dr Mandy Haggith

In a recent study ‘Wild Words for Woods’, funded by Scottish Forestry, researcher Dr Mandy Haggith uses a creative poetic inquiry technique to draw attention to the powerful and positive source of wellbeing trees offer people.  

All the words in the three-part poem have been contributed by participants who took part in three online events, set up to gather views and feelings about trees in our landscapes. Each section combines the chat responses to the question ‘Has the COVID-19 pandemic affected how you feel about trees?’, with the words reorganised to create a ‘poemish’ text.

The One Thing We Can Hug 

One  
Being among trees helped things feel less scary.
We somehow felt calmed by the trees, 
more connected. 
Yes, we feel more connected. 

Images are of trees, a person hugging a tree and researcher Dr Haggith
Rowan tree

When it was raining,  
we sheltered and sang under a group of yews,  
bare-foot, feeling amazing, 
reconnected to the earth. 

We’re much more aware of the effect that trees have on mood. 
As a consequence of walking more locally  
we have noticed more trees, 
watched the trees in a local park change from spring to summer, 
discovered we’re interested in weeds, 
looked much more closely at things growing,  
liverworts and lichens, 
fungi and other plants we hadn’t noticed before.  
We learned a lot from this focused watching. 

We completely slowed down, 
took time to explore, 
time to experience trees, every day,  
surprised how much we’d missed before, 
connecting with new trees that were nearer to us but not on our radar. 

Our day to day lives with our ‘work’ trees have strengthened. 
We have an embodied relationship with trees: 
touch, smell, sight, sound, heart. 
We feel inspired, we love listening to their birds.  
Great trees seem to teach and protect us. 
We feel healed by trees. 

Image credit Anne Hay

Two 

In lockdown a tree becomes 
the one thing we can hug. 

Three 

COVID-19 confirmed my love of trees, 
intensified the joy in them that I already knew, 
made me more aware of their natural cycles,  
made me wish I lived even closer to woodland. 
I sold my house. 
Perhaps I can move closer to the trees. 

I have always relied upon trees and nature to guide me, support me emotionally.  
I channelled my pandemic anxiety into looking after trees. 
I have so much awe for them now – even more than before. 

During lockdown everything was very still  
and made me realise that nature endures. 
Nature has been bursting out all over. 

For a depressingly short time  
I spent much more time outside, 
more time nearer home,  
more time in the forest.  
I have had lots more time  

to look closely at trees 
to see the trees 
really see trees 
stare at trees closely without feeling self-conscious. 
I think I maybe do notice them a bit more now. 
I slowed down and looked more. 

The ashes are dying. 
How many disasters have the trees seen? 

ENDS  

Dr Mandy Haggith is a lecturer in Creative Writing and Literature based at Inverness College UHI and is a researcher at the university’s Centre for Remote and Sustainable Communities.   For details on future online events planned in February and March or more information on the ‘Wild Words for Woods’ research project email Mandy.Haggith.ic@uhi.ac.uk.     

You can find links to a link to the University of the Highlands and Islands support services  from the website www.uhi.ac.uk/en/students/support/ | www.uhi.ac.uk/gd/dhachaigh/taic/ 

A decade of research at the University of the Highlands and Islands

As the University of the Highlands and Islands celebrates its tenth birthday, we look back at ten key research projects our staff and students have been involved in over the years. From Neolithic textiles to marine microplastics, we hope this small selection of studies highlights the breadth and significance of research across our university partnership.

Bere barley

In autumn 2014, Bruichladdich Distillery and Isle of Arran Distillers each released a new single malt whisky made from bere, an ancient type of Scottish barley. The return of bere to whisky production was largely made possible by the Agronomy Institute at Orkney College UHI which has been working with the crop, Orkney growers and commercial collaborators since 2002. Three more vintages of bere whisky have been released by Bruichladdich since 2014.

Dr Peter Martin, Director of the Agronomy Institute, explained: “We wanted to demonstrate that old crops can still be very valuable to today’s companies. The development of new markets for such crops allows farmers to earn an income from growing them and helps to ensure their on-farm survival. This is important for conserving them as a genetic and heritage resource and allows them to continue to adapt to changing conditions.”

Scottish land reform

Historic land issues have been one of the Centre for History’s key research areas since the centre was established by Professor Jim Hunter in 2005. The team’s research has shown that, from the late 18th century, land inequality has been one of the main causes of rural poverty and deprivation in the Scottish Highlands, leading to socially unjust emigration.

The work has been used to inform contemporary public policy debate on land reform and community buyout schemes. This has had an impact on levels of community ownership, on statutory oversight by the Scottish Land Commission and on extending community ‘right to buy’ to the whole of Scotland.

The research has fed directly into the Scottish-wide sense of land-access injustices and, as reported by the Land Reform Review Group, has helped shape the Scottish Government’s realisation that addressing land inequalities is “fundamental to the wellbeing, economic success, environmental sustainability and social justice of the country.”

The Phoenix

The Phoenix is the first ever large-scale aircraft powered by variable-buoyancy propulsion. Professor of Engineering, Andrew Rae, who is based at Perth College UHI Campus, led the design of the autonomous vehicle. He explained:

“The Phoenix spends half its time as a heavier-than-air aeroplane, the other as a lighter-than-air balloon. The repeated transition between these states provides the sole source of propulsion. This system allows the Phoenix to be completely self-sufficient.

“Vehicles based on this technology could be used as pseudo satellites and would provide a much cheaper option for telecommunication activities. Current equivalent aeroplanes are very complex and expensive. By contrast, Phoenix is almost expendable and so provides previously unavailable options.”

The prototype was flown successfully during indoor trials in 2019. The Phoenix team is exploring collaborations to take the technology to the next phase of development. The project was part-funded by Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency, through the Aerospace Technology Institute.

Linguistic fragility

Researchers from the university’s Language Sciences Institute and Soillse, a multi-institutional research collaboration, launched a new book in 2020. ‘The Gaelic Crisis in the Vernacular Community: A comprehensive sociolinguistic survey of Scottish Gaelic’ is the most comprehensive social survey on the state of Gaelic communities ever conducted.

The book presents research about Gaelic communities in the Western Isles, the Isle of Skye and Tiree. The authors’ main findings show that the language is in crisis and that, within remaining vernacular communities of Scotland, the social use and transmission of Gaelic is at the point of collapse.

The research has led to increased national awareness of linguistic, social and economic fragility in traditional Gaelic areas and to calls for new support and interventions.

Peatland research

Dr Roxane Andersen from the Environmental Research Institute at North Highland College UHI is a leading peatland researcher. In 2020 she was awarded a £986,000 Leverhulme Trust leadership award to undertake a new research programme into the peatlands of northern Scotland.

Dr Andersen will use the funding to develop a team of nine researchers who will explore how climate change could affect blanket bogs and to assess the effectiveness of restoration efforts. The team will use cutting-edge technologies and techniques, including satellite remote sensing, to investigate how we can protect and restore blanket bog areas.

Peatlands are renowned for their ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to promote biodiversity and to provide high quality water.

Water innovation

University of the Highlands and Islands researchers received £245,919 from the Scottish Government’s Hydro Nation scholars programme in 2020 to undertake two new projects to help improve the quality of water being released into the environment.

The first project will tackle the issue of clearing pharmaceutical drugs from hospital wastewater. These chemicals are difficult to remove from water treatment works so researchers will investigate whether new filters made from nanomaterials which adsorb and breakdown the chemicals, together with exposure to specialised light, can eliminate them before they leave hospital water systems. The project, led by the university’s Institute for Health Research and Innovation and North Highland College UHI’s Environmental Research Institute, will involve innovations developed by PolyCat UK and collaboration with NHS Highland.

The second project will investigate the effectiveness of reedbeds which are used to clean wastewater from the distilling process. Researchers from the Environmental Research Institute and Inverness College UHI’s Rivers and Lochs Institute will use ‘environmental DNA’ techniques to measure the diversity of the ecosystem in reedbeds and link this to water quality at Scottish distilleries. The project, run in collaboration with the Malt Distillers Association of Scotland, the Scotch Whisky Association and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, aims to develop a toolkit to maximise reedbed performance.

The university is part of the One Health Breakthrough Partnership which saw Caithness General become the first hospital to receive an Alliance for Water Stewardship award and which has now received Scottish Government funding to co-ordinate a national initiative.

Liver cancer treatment

An innovation developed by Professor Jun Wei, an expert in genetics, has shown promising results in the treatment of liver cancer. Professor Wei devised a kit for screening blood bank stock for samples with high levels of a cancer-fighting antibody. Plasma with high levels of the antibody can be infused into patients to kill liver cancer cells.

Trials in China, which has more than half of the world’s population of liver cancer patients, showed that people who received the new therapy survive, on average, one year longer than those who have received conventional treatment. This represents a significant increase in the life expectancy of these patients, with the average survival period increasing from 20 months to 32 months.

The university signed an agreement to licence the technology to Qingdao Hailanshen Biotechnology, the company which supported the clinical trials, in 2019.

Harmful algal blooms

Scotland’s aquaculture industry, including finfish and shellfish production, contributes approximately £620 million a year to the Scottish economy, supports over 12,000 jobs and generates employment in remote rural areas. Research by the Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI has minimised the serious risks to the economic sustainability of the aquaculture industry and the health of consumers posed by harmful algal blooms and their related biotoxins.

Understanding the development of harmful algal blooms allows rapid reporting and forecasting. This enables shellfish producers and the regulatory body (Food Standards Scotland) to suspend harvesting or undertake tests to verify the safety of the product when harmful algal blooms occur. Since 2014, this work and expertise has underpinned the supply of almost 15 million Scottish shellfish portions to UK and international consumers without a single reported poisoning case. The work has also informed harmful algal bloom regulatory monitoring guidance across all EU member states.

Archaeological discoveries

In June 2020, archaeologists from the university’s Archaeology Institute found evidence of a 5000-year-old Neolithic textile in Orkney. The impression of the woven cloth was discovered on a fragment of pottery found at Ness of Brodgar.

Organic material from prehistory does not often survive unless in very specific oxygen-free conditions so the study of Neolithic textiles relies on secondary evidence. There is only one other piece of evidence suggesting the use of woven textiles in Neolithic Scotland – another clay imprint discovered in Dumfries and Galloway in 1966.

The team has made many other significant finds, including evidence of a Viking drinking hall on Rousay and 8000-year-old hazel nut shells, thought to be the remains of Mesolithic hunter-gatherer’s snack on Skye.

Marine microplastics

In 2017, scientists at the Scottish Association for Marine Science UHI found that around half of marine creatures living at depths of more than 2000 metres in the North Atlantic could be eating microplastic material.

Researchers sampled deep-sea starfish and sea snails from the Rockall Trough and found microscopic traces of plastic in 48 per cent of those sampled. The levels of plastic ingestion were comparable to those found in species living in shallower coastal waters.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic less than 5 millimetres in size and, when ingested by sea creatures, may be passed up the food chain.

Although scientists previously found traces of microplastics in the deep sea, this research was the first time microplastic ingestion in deep-sea invertebrates has been quantified.

Creating connections: Supporting the social side of online learning

With lockdown restrictions affecting campuses across the world, 2020 has shone a spotlight on online and blended learning techniques. However, education is about more than the transfer of knowledge. Social interactions are an important part of the student experience, vital for providing support and developing skills such as team working. We asked staff, graduates and our students’ association how they help to create digital learning communities.

Dr Iain Morrison, Dean of Students

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the ways higher education operates, with many universities having to adapt quickly to an environment where learning and teaching delivery is predominately online. Pedagogical skills have had to be rapidly developed, online infrastructure invested in and student expectations managed.

Less visible have been the rapid changes in the ways professional services are being delivered to ensure processes work smoothly for students and their support needs are met.

All universities are now moving into the online space to support their students and, at the University of the Highlands and Islands, we are finding ourselves the subject of multiple requests from colleagues elsewhere keen to learn from our experiences. Although nothing could have prepared us for the recent challenges, we have found that we possess significant strengths.

Based in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, our partnership of 13 colleges and research institutions covers the largest geographical area of any campus-based university or college in the UK. We have the largest student population in Scotland, with nearly 37,000 students studying with us each year. Our blended learning approach combines video conferencing, online technologies, real time support from lecturers and local staff and face-to-face teaching.

Although we have the advantage of world-class technology, the focus is not on the technology itself, but how we use it to support our students and to create a sense of belonging and opportunity during this challenging period.

Emma Robson, Activities Manager, Highlands and Islands Students’ Association

The Highlands and Islands Students’ Association had to adapt quickly to the ‘new world’ during a crucial time for both new and returning students.

Clubs and societies started to use social media and communication platforms in place of physical meet ups and arranged social events such as quizzes for their members. Students also set up new ways to recruit members, taking part in induction programmes at local colleges to ensure engagement is as high as possible.

HISA student reps coordinated virtual tours of campuses and local areas across the Highlands and Islands and organised online social events like ‘dungeons and dragons’ which proved very popular. There have also been student competitions, including a treasure hunt in Lerwick to encourage students to individually find their way around their new town! Many other campuses also hosted events, such as live DJ sets, music bingo and virtual drop-in sessions with senior management.

Throughout lockdown, HISA has put on a range of events which are open to all students, including ‘cuppa and chat’ sessions to allow students to get to know people from different campuses. We also arranged a ‘HISA-lympics’ for students to keep fit.

We introduced an online freshers’ programme this year too. The event included a quiz hosted by Mark Labbett from ITV’s ‘The Chase’. Our students took on Fife students and, naturally, our students won! We also had a music event which celebrated women in traditional music across the university partnership which reached almost ten thousand viewers. Our most popular freshers’ event was a comedy night with four comedians, including headliner Iain Stirling. It was a fantastic comedy exclusive for Highlands and Islands students!

Anna-Wendy Stevenson, BA (Hons) Applied Music Programme Leader

Our applied music programme has pioneered delivering creative online residentials to students since 2014, allowing participation from even the most remote locations. As a result, despite the current restrictions due to Coronavirus, our students could meet as usual this September through a virtual residency.

We are living in a time where community has never been so important. The value of community for collaboration and learning underpins the curriculum design and delivery of our applied music degree.

Our face to face residencies are rites of passage and reflect many aspects of the professional music world, from long, intense days full of learning, to working with musicians of different backgrounds and expertise. Shifting to fully online as a result of COVID, we consciously retained the intensity of schedule and expectations, engaging students in collaborative tasks which are often creatively and academically challenging. 

We begun our academic year by focusing on our programme values and ethics, discussing themes of ‘community’, ‘collaboration over competition’ and ‘belonging’. We created a range of in-course support groups, both in and across year groups, through a study buddy system and by spreading students who are confident with technology throughout groups. Bringing the university’s creative writing degree into our residency allowed students to meet with peers on another programme. Engaging with external organisations such as the Scottish Music Industry Association and XpoNorth to shape opportunities for response and resilience has also been a key factor. 

Video conference presentations with simultaneous chat functions have enabled more discursive and meaningful interactions between students and staff. We have found there is stronger attention and investment as part of the evolving discussion process. One second year student explained: “I feel noticed, encouraged and valued.”

To develop performance skills, musicians need to isolate and practice for hours on end. Yet rarely is the performative side a solo venture – it usually relies on intensive collaboration. To facilitate this, we create opportunities for social engagement such as ‘a chat and a tune’ on Friday lunchtimes and an ‘applied music bake-off’ which went global on social media. We have also organised evening events such as ‘desert island discs’ which encourages staff to share their musical inspirations, experiences and life stories.

This holistic approach to support collaboration, community and wellbeing both in curriculum and in social spaces has been incredibly successful. Contrary to staff and student concerns, engagement in the online environment was actually been higher and more sustained during the online residency week than the equivalent face to face activity. New friendships have been forged from Spain to Shetland through a carefully curated community of practice which values collaboration over competition.

Fraser Szymborski-Welsh, PGDE (Primary) graduate

There were lots of opportunities to build relationships with fellow students on the PGDE (primary) course, both online and in person. At the start of the year, we met at Badaguish Outdoor Centre for a three-day residency where we collaborated with students from across the university partnership. We met our classmates for the first time and formed seminar groups which would meet online during the course.

Being online helped massively with the social elements of student life. We used chat groups to keep in contact with our classmates and seminar groups for document sharing and collaborative work. The benefits of using online chats for advice, reassurance and support cannot be understated. There was always somebody available who had experienced the same problem or asked the same question before. An issue from a student in Inverness could potentially be resolved in just a few minutes by a network of students from as far away as Shetland or the Borders.

Our online collaboration increased greatly when classes went online during lockdown. Classes and meetings were held in virtual classrooms and assessments were submitted online too. We also adapted to socialising in this way. Where we would have met up in person before, we used online facilities to host informal chats. We even held a ‘spring break’ party where some of us wore fancy dress on the last day of term!

Now our class has graduated, we still keep in touch via WhatsApp groups. It’s fantastic to hear how everyone is getting on and to have a network of new teachers around the country we can call on for advice throughout our careers.

Top tips for preventing digital eye strain

With many of us spending more time than ever at our computer screens, Alison Macpherson, Programme Leader for the University of the Highlands and Islands’ optometry BSc (Hons), highlights the issue of digital eyestrain and how to avoid it.

When the clocks go back at the start of winter, optometry practitioners often see an increase in patients reporting difficulty with reading small print in the darker nights.

We often forget that the human eye is a finely tuned instrument which works best in natural daylight conditions, so reading outside on a bright summer’s day (with protection from UV rays of course) is a very different visual task to sitting in front of the fire on a cold winter’s evening reading the latest release from a favourite author. Similarly, the use of digital technology as a means of communication can have an impact on our visual system.

The COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to cause challenges to our daily lives. Many of us are still working remotely from our kitchen tables or spare rooms and the format of our working day is considerably different from how it was before lockdown.

Our day to day lives have become dominated by technology. Our working days can consist of virtual meetings requiring long spells in front of a screen and, even away from work, our social interactions are now also facilitated via Zoom, Facetime or other virtual means. This means that large portions of our lives currently centre around display screen equipment.

Using a screen or computer can be visually demanding and may cause symptoms which are not apparent when you carry out other work. Asthenopia (eyestrain) associated with screen use can manifest with a variety of symptoms including eye fatigue, discomfort, blurred vision, pain or generally sore eyes. Visually related symptoms can also be caused by factors such as ergonomics.

How to help these symptoms

  • Take regular breaks
  • Look away from your screen periodically and allow your eyes to refocus on an object at a different distance. A good technique is to use the 20-20-20 rule by focussing on an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes.
  • Adjust the settings on your screen including brightness, contrast and font size so it’s easier to see
  • Consider the distance you are sitting away from the screen – arm’s length is optimal for most people.
  • Regular eye examinations with an optometrist can help to identify any underlying causes that may be contributing to symptoms.
  • Optometrist, Nicola McElvanney, from Optometry Scotland, also recommends switching off screens at least half an hour before you go to bed, as this may upset the Circadian rhythms that help to control sleep patterns.

For more information about the University of the Highlands and Islands BSc (Hons) optometry, visit www.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses/bsc-hons-optometry

Responding to the pandemic – insights from an infection prevention and control graduate

Sofie French, a senior infection prevention and control nurse who graduated from our infection prevention and control MSc in 2018, talks about responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and the benefits of online study.

Tell us about your experience of studying infection prevention and control

I completed the infection prevention and control MSc online whilst in full-time employment as an infection prevention and control specialist nurse.

The course linked directly with all aspects of my clinical practice. It gave me a deeper theoretical knowledge and understanding of infection prevention and control and allowed me to apply this to my daily practice e.g. when managing incidents or outbreaks in healthcare facilities.

Through completing this course, I have not only gained promoted posts in my field, but I have had the opportunity to present at national and international conferences.

When I started studying with the university, I was working as an infection prevention and control audit and surveillance nurse. I am currently a senior infection prevention and control nurse, working at a national level within the Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection Scotland team.

What does your job involve?

My role is incredibly diverse. One day I can be filming educational videos, the next I’ll be providing specialist advice and support to Health Boards on outbreak management. I manage a planned programme of work, which includes the ongoing development and maintenance of the National Infection Prevention and Control Manual, a resource to support board-level infection prevention and control across NHS Scotland.

Within infection prevention and control, my passion is delivering education. I enjoy developing educational materials and this was the focus for my dissertation. Throughout my career I have gained extensive experience in face to face teaching and have also had the opportunity to develop educational content for NHS Education for Scotland.

Some of our work is also reactive in nature, such as supporting the national COVID-19 pandemic response. The pandemic has completely changed the way we work, as the situation is continually evolving, meaning we need to react swiftly. I was also deployed to the NHS Louisa Jordan Nightingale Hospital to assist with the operational phase of opening. This was a once in a lifetime experience that will stay with me forever.

How have you been involved in the COVID-19 response?

I’ve been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response, providing support and guidance, reviewing outbreak and incident data and working closely with stakeholders such as NHS Boards and the Scottish Government. Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infection Scotland is leading the national agenda for infection prevention and control in Scotland.

I continue to work and collaborate with NHS Education for Scotland as part of my role and we have recently developed COVID-19 supporting educational materials.

How did you find studying online?

Distance learning can often be perceived as challenging, but if the recent lockdown has taught us anything, it’s that it can be done! Throughout my time at the university I felt that all of the tutors and lecturers were fantastic. They were available to provide guidance and support throughout the modules and kept the momentum of the module going through ongoing engagement on the university’s virtual learning environment.

The benefit of distance learning is that you have the opportunity to engage with individuals from all over the world, virtually. There were people from many different countries on my course and we all participated in discussions. It was interesting to understand the infection prevention and control challenges that colleagues faced in other countries, such as extensive antimicrobial resistance.

It also gave us the ability to share and discuss how we would manage issues within in our own areas. This is a level of discussion that other students may not experience in a face to face learning environment and I feel that it was beneficial and allowed me to reflect on my own clinical practice.

You can find out more about the University of the Highlands and Islands Infection Prevention and Control MSc atwww.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses/msc-infection-prevention-and-control