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A history of the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership in ten objects

To mark the University of the Highlands and Islands tenth birthday, we invited colleagues to provide an insight into some of the interesting objects which tell the story of our partnership!

1. Sir John Murray’s microscope at SAMS UHI

We believe SAMS UHI to be the oldest entity in the university partnership, having come into existence in 1884. We are also proud to have been one of the founding members of the UHI Millennium Institute.

Our prized object is a microscope once owned and used by Sir John Murray, our ‘founding father’ who is honoured by our main research building, which is named after him and where his microscope is displayed.

Sir John Murray, a member of the Canadian Scottish diaspora, returned to study in Edinburgh and is known as the ‘father of oceanography’. Sir John was a scientist on board the Challenger Expedition (1872 to 1876), the world’s first recognised marine science expedition for science’s sake, covering nearly 70,000 nautical miles. He subsequently led the production of a magnificent set of 30 volumes of reports, which we have at SAMS UHI – worthy companions to the microscope.

During the production of the reports, Sir John established an ‘office’ in Queen Street, Edinburgh, which attracted marine scientists from around the world, to analyse all the materials collected on the voyage – the start of what is now SAMS UHI. The office was soon added to by physical laboratories: firstly, a barge in Granton harbour, which was formally opened in 1884 – the date we use formally for our establishment, but which I think rather underestimates our longevity; secondly, a steam yacht for offshore work.

These were subsequently relocated to Millport on the Island of Cumbrae, where John Murray became the first Director. An impressive laboratory was subsequently built, which is still active as a Field Studies Council centre.

However, in the late 1960s it was becoming clear Millport was not an ideal location, especially with an increasing need to access deep water. A new site was sought and our current location on the Dunstaffnage Peninsula was settled on and the institute was moved in 1970, where we remain, although we continue to grow.

Throughout all this time there have been several name changes, but the core of what we do has not changed: to continue to discover and to promote outwardly our discoveries. Thus, we are very proud of the ‘golden thread’ we can see very clearly running through from our earliest days to now. And no more so than the practical reminder provided by Sir John’s microscope.

The importance of Sir John Murray’s microscope to us and we hope its value to the university partnership in celebrating its tenth birthday, is not only its direct connection with an historical founder, but also its symbol to a key activity of the university – the creation of new knowledge.

Professor Nicholas Owens, Director, SAMS UHI

2. Shetland College UHI’s Lerwick building

Shetland College UHI was first established in 1970. Our Lerwick campus was originally located on the other side of town before migrating to its current location at Gremista. Up until ten years ago, the Gremista campus consisted of two separate buildings with a road passing between them. This set up always felt a little disjointed and we struggled for adequate teaching spaces.

In 2014, our new £4.5 million extension was officially opened by the university’s chancellor, HRH The Princess Royal. The development linked the two existing buildings together to form one single, large building.

The extension created an entrance which leads directly into a library and study area and which provides easy access to the rest of the college. It also helped to expand the canteen and construction workshop areas and provided a new hospitality training kitchen as well as offices and classrooms. Existing classrooms were re-designed to allow improved layout, study spaces and art studios. 

Our new campus is a huge improvement. The development helps us to support and inspire learners, providing opportunities for students to stay in their local community to study.

Euan Robertson, Senior Lecturer in Computing, Shetland College UHI

3. Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI’s portrait of Somhairle MacGill-Eain

Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI has been very fortunate in its supporters and patrons since its foundation in 1973. None stands out so prominently as Sorley MacLean. This is sufficient reason for the college to have a portrait of him, were it not also for his stature and reputation as the most distinguished of Gaelic poets.

The full-length portrait in oils was one of a series of ‘contemporary poets’ commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in 1990 from the artist, Peter Edwards. The artist explained his work as image rather than portrait, projecting what the poet and his poetry meant to him. This purpose was underlined in the London exhibition by each of the poets choosing a poem to accompany their portrait. Sorley MacLean chose Creagan Beaga, with its intense response to the night sounds of sea and land under moonlight. The portrait shows the poet standing on the shore at Peinchorrain in Braes with the Sound of Raasay and Glamaig in the background. In 2005, the artist presented the portrait to the Sorley MacLean Trust for display in Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI.

Somhairle MacGill-Eain was born in 1911 in Osgaig, Raasay, his culture and store of tradition coming from his family and his island community, catalysed by a finely tuned awareness of the history of Gaelic Scotland and of the political position of the Gael. His poetry is powerfully redolent of the land and seascape of Skye and Raasay. But his landscape occupied a different world from the earlier nature poets and, with its litany of placenames, transcended Romanticism in its symbolic recall.

With first-class honours in English language and literature, he embarked on a teaching career. Writing with an intensity and passion, he composed his celebrated love sequence, Dàin do Eimhir, and An Cuilithionn (‘The Cuillin’) against the backdrop of the rise of Fascism and impending world war. Having made the decision to write in Gaelic, his dedication to the language was sustained in a mood of pessimism over its survival. As late as 1974, he wrote: cha b’urrainn cor na Gàidhlig a bhith ach truagh (‘the state of Gaelic could not be anything other than wretched’).

He was witnessing initiatives such as the founding of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig though, commenting that this was ‘the beginning of a beginning compared with what ought to be’ (toiseach tòiseachaidh seach mar bu chòir). Nonetheless his support for the Gaelic college was absolute and heartfelt, as his words of hope express in a poem of commemoration.

……

luibhean ’s blàthan an rùin

mu Shabhal Ostaig, agus solas,

Deò-grèine dòchas nan Gàidheal,

mu bhallachan ùra ’s sean,

…….

the herbs and flowers of aspiration

about Sabhal Ostaig; and a light

sunbeam of the Gael’s hope,

about its old and new walls.

May good fortune and success

be with the great work of the Sabhal.

Gealach an fhàis os cionn Shlèite / A waxing moon above Sleat (1974)

Professor Uisdean Cheape, MSc Senior Lecturer / Àrd-Òraidiche Cùrsa MSc, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

4. IT infrastructure

The project to createour university ramped up in 1997, with £100 million funding arriving for a range of capital initiatives. Information technology was seen as the glue which would bring the partnership together. One of the first initiatives was to deploy video conferencing units to each of our academic partners, made up of very large TV screens on stands and three lines.

The first email system was called ‘First Class’ and comprised an Apple computer acting as a server connected by modems to a single computer in each site.

Over the next three years, we spent several millions to provide structured cabling, a new telephone system and equipment to allow everyone to talk and use the growing video conferencing facilities without incurring very large bills.

Having a fast connection is the most important glue for any IT system so Scottish Telecom undertook their largest infrastructure project in the north. Fibre optic cables were laid from Aberdeen to Thurso via Elgin, Inverness, Dingwall and Wick. New radio towers were built down the Great Glen to interconnect Fort William, Skye and Oban and microwave and fibre optic cables were laid to get to Stornoway. A series of towers were built to connect Orkney and Shetland and this was largely completed by 2000.

By 2001 we invested another £1 million on video conferencing kit to cope with the demand for remote learning. In 2005 we were running more video conferences than the entire higher education sector in the UK combined! We also installed a number of software systems including a common virtual learning environment, student information system and library management system. Our IT helpdesk was created to grow to support the increasing demand from staff and students.

With the growth in computing demand, we also set up our own datacentres in Inverness and Oban – later moving this to Perth. This infrastructure allowed us to have hundreds of virtual servers on just eight large servers, all backed up to Oban.

In 2009, we undertook several projects to roll out Wi-Fi everywhere together with a new local area network. We also deployed updated video conferencing kit to meet even higher demands. In 2011 we moved our email and user directory to Microsoft and in 2016 we adopted the Scottish Wide Area Network SWAN which allowed for 1GB to all the main sites and larger bandwidth to the learning centres.

Together with colleagues in partner IT teams, we have shared knowledge and developed expertise in a huge range of areas which has helped to ensure that we are ready for the next ten years as a university.

Mike MacDonald, Head of IT Services

5. The university’s coat of arms, robes and mace

Once the University of the Highlands and Islands achieved university status on 1 February 2011, the search was on for the appropriate symbols for the ceremonial trappings of that lofty status – our university badge, our robes and our mace. I was delighted to be consulted on the design of these which I feel really reflect the history, location and natural environment of the university.

For example, our badge, with its compass showing the importance of location, its books showing the importance of education, and its hazel leaves which are a symbol of wisdom for both the indigenous Celtic and Norse cultures of the Highlands and Islands, is a worthy symbol of the nature and philosophy of the university. The hazel leaves and catkins also appear on the facings of the university officers’ ceremonial robes, reflecting the great wisdom and knowledge these roles demand.

The mace is now a ceremonial artefact symbolising authority, but was originally a weapon and the bearer a kind of bodyguard at state occasions. Our mace is a wonderful example of modern silvercraft with its freeform and organic symbolism, reflecting our university of the moment. I was asked to make a choice between lime and ash for the shaft. I chose ash because it is indigenous to the Highlands and Islands, which lime is not, and also for its significance in both Celtic and Norse mythology. Like the hazel, it features in the Celtic Tree calendar. It is also a symbol of protection – Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology which supports the entire Norse cosmos, is an ash tree. This is also the case in Gaelic tradition – three of the five legendary guardian trees of Ireland were ash. In traditional folklore, the ash tree is particularly associated with the protection and nurturing of young people.

I also thought it complemented the hazel tree, which I had suggested for the badge and robes, as symbols of wisdom and protection but also of our natural environment which defines our university too.

The mace and the robes offer protection and the accrual of wisdom as our students set along life’s path!

Professor Donna Heddle, Director of the Institute for Northern Studies

6. Highlands and Islands Students’ Association awards

The University of the Highlands and Islands was one of the first institutions in the UK to work with the Higher Education Academy and the National Union of Students to introduce student-led teaching awards. They were rolled out across our partnership in 2010, then adopted by institutions across the UK by 2012.

Run by the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association, the awards give students the opportunity to thank the academic staff, support staff and students who have inspired and supported them.The annual awards are judged by a student panel who decide the winners based on the quality (rather than quantity) of nominations received for a particular individual.

In 2010, I was delighted to receive a letter to say I’d been chosen in the ‘greatest expertise in video conference delivery’ and ‘best assessment feedback’ categories. The awards themselves (a column of glass stars balanced on top of each other) were presented to me at the autumn graduation ceremony in the not very atmospheric Clickimin Sport Centre in Lerwick.

I have to admit to being inordinately proud of my awards, particularly the one for best video conference delivery. It inspired me to publish papers about the use of video conferencing in teaching. Do take part, it made my day ten years ago.

Dr Simon Clarke, Senior Lecturer, Shetland College UHI

7. Highland Theological College UHI’s library

Highland Theological College UHI has the largest library by volume in the partnership.

Since the inception of the college in 1994, the collection has grown significantly, due in large part to many generous benefactors over the years, not least of which was the family of the late and dearly loved Martin Cameron. As librarian and a pillar of college life for some twenty years, Martin built the collection from the ground up to the 60,000 plus volumes we are privileged to be custodians of today.

The college has three main special collections. The Rutherford House Collection, comprising 11,500 books and 1800 periodicals and pamphlets, including rare and important monographs which belonged to what is now the Rutherford Centre for Reformed Theology based in Dingwall. The William Temple collection, comprising books of important Anglican heritage from the personal library of former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple (1881-1944). And the Fort Augustus collection, containing some 10,000 volumes from the former library of St. Benedict’s Abbey, a Roman Catholic Monastery from 1880 to 1998. A more detailed history of the collections held by the library is featured as part of the library’s online guide.

It’s always fascinating and exciting to come across resources which give an enriching insight into Scottish church history and we look forward to digitising this content to make it readily accessible. One such primary source held at the library is a handwritten book of some 28 sermons dating from the 18th century. It was penned by Rev Thomas Simpson of Avoch, an ancestor of a gentleman whose wife generously donated the book to the college in 2020. The postscript reads:

‘This first volume of sermons was begun at Avoch the 27th day of October 1760 years and finished the first day of October 1761 years by me Thomas Simpson minister of the Gospel at Avoch. Deo Juvante.’

Geordie Cryle, Librarian, Highland Theological College UHI

8. SAMS UHI’s Culture Collection for Algae and Protozoa

Algae are the unsung heroes of the sea, providing food for larger creatures and absorbing some of the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity.

More than 3000 different strains of algae, protozoa and seaweeds have a home at the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) UHI, where scientists at the Culture Collection for Algae and Protozoa (CCAP) maintain a unique collection that goes back more than 100 years.

The global reputation of CCAP, which regularly sends marine and freshwater samples to researchers and companies all over the world, showcases the university’s science credentials on the world stage.

Perhaps the oldest sample in this collection is the algae Chlorella vulgaris. It was first isolated in 1892 by Dutch scientist Martinus Willem Beijerinck, who is credited with discovering viruses. This particular strain is used in ecotoxicology tests and is therefore ordered on a regular basis, as well as having citations in more than 100 academic papers.

Chlorella vulgaris was part of the original collection started by Professor Ernst Georg Pringsheim at the Botanical Institute of the German University of Prague in the 1920s. In response to the Nazi invasion of Prague, Pringsheim and his cultures moved to the UK. The collection grew and was split between marine and freshwater algae, with the marine elements coming to SAMS in 1986. However, when SAMS UHI opened the Sir John Murray Building in 2004, the freshwater collection came to Oban too, creating one of the most diverse algal collections in the world.

Euan Paterson, Communications and Media Officer, SAMS UHI

9. Cachaileith na Colaiste at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

‘The gateway of the college’ is a symbol of the welcome experienced by students over the years on entering the enfolding arms of the old building. This is the entrance to the old steading of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI, the building in which the Gaelic college was founded in 1973.

The iron gates were not a part of the original building, but were brought from the house of Rosemount, Tain, about 1982 and re-erected in their present position. They were dedicated by Lady Ray Bannerman in a ceremony which included unveiling a fine bronze war memorial to the fallen of the 1939-1945 War mounted on the steading wall beside the gates. This also celebrated a landmark moment for the college with validation of the first SCOTVEC further education courses.

The gates, fine products of the craft of the blacksmith (whose name is not recorded), were probably made about 1949 when An Comunn Gàidhealach set up its annual summer youth camp at Rosemount or Cnoc nan Ròs at the direction of John M Bannerman (1901-1969). Lord Bannerman of Kildonan, Liberal politician and farmer, rugby internationalist and Mòd Gold medallist, was president of An Comunn Gàidhealach from 1949 to 1954 and worked tirelessly for the promotion of Gaelic.

The gates remind us that the high art of metalworking belonged to the Gàidhealtachd of Scotland and Ireland; the same patterning and decorative flourishes are found on the earliest fine metalwork, on carving and sculpture and in the embellishment of manuscripts, and are symbolic of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI’s role in the preservation and perpetuation of the language.

Professor Uisdean Cheape, MSc Senior Lecturer / Àrd-Òraidiche Cùrsa MSc, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig UHI

10. The Cairns Bowl, Orkney

In July 2018, the oldest wooden bowl found in Orkney to date and the only prehistoric wooden bowl, was found during our excavation at The Cairns in South Ronaldsay.

The 2000-year-old vessel was recovered from an underground chamber beneath the Iron Age broch that once dominated site. It is very finely carved, exceptionally finished and was carved from alder wood.

Measuring around 27 centimetres in diameter, it has an elegant profile, an everted rim (splayed outwards), a globular body and round-bottomed base. Tool marks are visible in the interior, but the exterior has been finely burnished.

On one of the broken edges of the bowl there is something astonishing. A series of about 16 strange-looking, strips of bronze can be made out. They are flush with the surface of the bowl and arranged in a tightly spaced vertical column running up the height of the vessel along the line of a large, ancient crack.

The strips are in fact an unusual and distinctive type of wood rivet. Beyond these, a further small straight metal strip, also bronze, runs across the break and is an ancient bracket or staple! The staples and rivets represent a very artful ancient repair, or repairs, made to prolong the vessel’s life. The care taken over the repair of the bowl suggests such items were not common and that it was highly valued.

It is thought the bowl was placed in the subterranean chamber – at its deepest, innermost end – sometime between AD150-200.

The bowl is currently undergoing a long process of conservation and consolidation in Edinburgh. When the process is complete, the bowl will return to Orkney and the Archaeology Institute, and thereafter, when all the field work and analysis on site is complete, it can hopefully take up a place in the museum here so locals and visitors can see this miraculous survivor from the ancient world.

The craft and cleverness that went into the bowl and the exquisite repairs show that 2000 years ago Iron Age Islanders had sophisticated and artful sets of skills.

The resilience of these communities and their willingness to sustain their possessions, and their culture more generally, is surely an inspiration for the university and its contemporary cultural, economic and environmental mission across the Highlands and Islands.

Martin Carruthers, Archaeology Lecturer, Orkney College UHI

Connecting the partnership: how video conferencing shaped the University of the Highlands and Islands

As the University of the Highlands and Islands celebrates its tenth birthday, our longest serving video conferencing expert, Roray Stewart, provides an insight into the importance of the technology to the development of the partnership.  

When did you join the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership?

I started as an apprentice IT technician with Shetland College UHI in 1998, before becoming a video conference technician with the university in 2001. At the time there was an expansion of IT services taking place across the partnership. Partners could submit bids to host services. Shetland College UHI won the right to run the video conference service.

As part of my work at the college, I’d had some experience of helping staff and students use the video conference facilities. I found it interesting and could see that it had potential for becoming a more widely used technology. I worked alongside the senior video conference technician and video conference administrator.

How has your role changed over the time you have been with us?

There have been a few significant changes over the years:

  • The growth in video conferencing demand. In 2001 we ran 2200 conferences. Fast forward to 2019 and we were running 22140 conferences. For obvious reasons 2020 saw a significant growth with approximately 92,000 meetings on Webex alone. Add on Microsoft Teams and we will have hosted over 100,000 meetings!
  • The technology has moved on leaps and bounds with better quality audio and video and added features. Two of the main ones that enabled growth were desktop calling and recording of conferences.
  • We are no longer as hands on with scheduling meetings. We used to manually create each meeting the morning of the day it was due to take place.

What are some of your most memorable moments?

  • When we hit 10,000 conferences in a year in 2011. That seemed like such a milestone at the time.
  • Presenting at two online sessions which I would describe as being well outside my comfort zone. In August 2020 I ran a Webex training session to over 180 staff members. I had never presented to as many people before (or since). I also gave a presentation to the Webex community recently about the university and our transition to Webex. The live session reached 17 countries with 43 different organisations represented by 78 attendees.
  • Being lucky enough to have travelled around most of our campus locations throughout the years. The scenery is stunning and we have great staff around the partnership.

What is your proudest moment of working with the university?

Seeing university title granted and becoming the University of the Highlands and Islands. The hard work by many over the years had finally paid off.

Do you think the role of video conferencing has been vital to the development of our university partnership?

For me, it certainly has been one of the key tools in the development of the university partnership. Video conferencing has been used since the early days of getting the university off the ground, through the different phases of our development, to being awarded university title and now continuing through a global pandemic.

Due to our geographic spread, video conferencing will remain a key tool in our development going forward. It may take on a new name and the technology may change, but video will still be at the heart of it. Using a blend of face-to-face teaching and innovative technologies offers students the flexibility to study when and wherever they choose.

Do you think the university partnership is a pioneer in this area?

We were well known for being a pioneer in video conference use and our opinion was respected by other institutions, at conferences and by the equipment vendors. I remember colleagues that had attended or given presentations at conferences saying that the other attendees were always impressed by the sheer volume of video conferencing we did back then.

What do you think the future holds for video conferencing and online meetings?

Video conferencing and online meetings are here to stay – I think that’s safe to safe to say. Conferences and events will offer some form of online capability alongside in-person attendance for a while to come, although I’d expect that to reduce over time.

A couple of possible developments down the line could be 3D video conferencing or virtual reality meetings where attendees will meet in either a virtual representation of a real space or a purely virtual one. There are start-ups and companies already working on this, but whether they come to market time will tell.

For me it’s an exciting technology sector to work in and one I have a real passion for. Also, I finally no longer need to explain what my job is as everyone has been video calling or ‘Zooming’ for the last year or so!

Preparing students for the workplace of tomorrow, with the skills employers value now

As part of our annual employability week, Fergus Weir, Managing Director at teclan ltd, one of Scotland’s leading Digital Marketing Agencies, and Nicola Smith, Head of Careers and Employability at the university, share their thoughts on developing skills for a digital future.  

Reflecting on his career journey, Fergus reveals an early fascination of internet technology having witnessed the evolution of the internet from around 1992 and shares his tips on landing a right role.

Photograph of Fergus

My passion for learning and not being afraid to have a go – make mistakes and learn from them – equipped me with the confidence to explore almost all the emerging internet technologies of the time.

Fast forward a number of years and having gained much more knowledge and experience in web technologies and commerce, I still use and need these early learnt skills. As the managing director of a fast-growing business in the digital sector my ethos remains the same, it is important to find solutions to problems by learning from all experiences and to not be afraid to try

Why all graduates should consider pursuing opportunities in the digital sector

A common phrase touted around used to be ‘the future is digital’. Well, the future has arrived. Almost everything is digital. There are very few roles and jobs in today’s economy that do not involve digital skills and technologies in one form or another.

Our culture and societal norms are often embedded in digital medium.

The workplace of tomorrow needs you! Those who can add value, solve a problem, create something new or just improve how a business utilises technology. Equipped with the right skills, confidence, and qualifications you will have a powerful role to play in the way the future economy develops.

The digital sector, its growth, and the opportunities available in our region

Prior to COVID-19 the trend for businesses to expand more into internet technologies as a gateway to market had been steadily increasing. Our experience at teclan showed that businesses in the Highlands were not always at the forefront of that trend.

However, since the pandemic, many businesses across the UK, including the Highlands, have been given a sharp shock, forcing them to implement sometimes missing or old digital strategies to generate new revenue streams and routes to market.

This is resulting in a labour market change with a significant boom in the need for skills that support and assist that transition and expansion into online technologies. The continued increase in internet usage over the last 18 months, across all age groups, has further accelerated opportunities and growth for those businesses adapting to the changes and adopting new digital practices.

Another outcome from the pandemic has been the explosion of flexible working and a wider cultural shift in thinking that people can work for anyone, from anywhere. With the rise of digital agencies and businesses increasingly bringing these skills in-house, it has further increased the need for digital technology literate problem solvers who are competent and enthusiastic people.

The right fit – proactively identifying and pursuing opportunities

Working for money is an awful lot easier if you like what you do AND you work with, and for, the right people. Understanding an organisations core values and speaking with the people who work there can help hugely in determining whether you want to work there or not.

As a business leader, I know that our employees are vital to our success and I enjoy speaking with people that are truly interested about what we do and want to find out about what opportunities, work placements are available, or just want a little advice. 

Pick up the phone. Send an email. Be genuinely curious and interested in a business and its employees and owners, to get to know that business and its people. It’s part of your learning. Ask about opportunities, work placements, or just advice. Business owners will generally happily talk about their business if they feel someone is truly interested.

Working for money is an awful lot easier if you like what you do AND you work with, and for, the right people. Understanding an organisations core values and speaking with the people who work there can help hugely in determining whether you want to work there or not.

As a business leader, I know that our employees are vital to our success and I enjoy speaking with people that are truly interested about what we do and want to find out about what opportunities, work placements are available, or just want a little advice. 

Pick up the phone. Send an email. Be genuinely curious and interested in a business and its employees and owners, to get to know that business and its people. It’s part of your learning. Ask about opportunities, work placements, or just advice. Business owners will generally happily talk about their business if they feel someone is truly interested.

Fergus Weir is speaking on Tuesday 27 April 2021 as part of the University of the Highlands and Islands employability week event series.  

Based in Lochaber, Nicola comes from a long line of small business owners stretching back to her grandparents. She is passionate about helping students to prepare for their future and supporting them into future employment. 

Dial-up phones and no mobiles or emails! The changed working world

Photograph of Nicola

When I first started in the workplace, we used dial-up phones, there were no mobiles, we didn’t have email, and a fax in the workplace was very high tech.

Each new technological advance meant learning new skills, adapting practice and processes, and quite often running to catch up. Between then and now, the world of work has changed dramatically, and it keeps changing as we and the technologies we use to manage our lives grow and evolve.

Will the pandemic make changes to our working lives, and the way in which businesses approach the future?

Change inevitably results in new practices, which means new opportunities, and teclan is a perfect example of how innovative forward-thinking organisation can thrive and grow in a rural environment.  

And for our students and graduates entering the workplace, I firmly believe that the advancement of flexible working accelerated by the deployment of technology during the pandemic will result in new and attractive employment opportunities that can help people to create a healthy work and life balance from the location and community they love, and want to be based in.

What does remain constant is the type of skills and attributes that we develop in our further and higher education courses, and through the support we provide at the University of the Highland and Islands career and employability centre, all designed to ensure students are equipped with the attributes that are valued in the workplace.

Problem-solving, enthusiasm, curiosity, team working, continuous learning, being proactive, showing an interest and grasping opportunities to find solutions are vital now, and for the future workplace. 

Good communication skills are of huge importance, alongside things like self-discipline, self-motivation, and time management; not necessarily ‘learned skills’, but qualities we help our students to understand and apply.

Self-confidence in planning for the future is also key. There is widely held belief that gaining a qualification confers on you a level of instant confidence, the ability to articulate who you are as a person and what you bring to the workplace.  For some this might true, but for many it is simply the first step in working out what comes next, and indeed what the next step after that might look like. 

We all know that planning for the future can be daunting, that the next step is often balanced against other areas of an individual’s life and can and will be subject to change, and that there are a multitude of things we can never plan for. 

Our career and employability team helps students to think things through and take action to change things. Sometimes small steps, sometimes big leaps – all dependent on the individuals own unique path.

Employers will always look for a package of skills which contain these elements.  Indeed, advances in technology and a move to more remote working trends will only enhance the need for these types of attributes now and in the future 

The careers and employability centre

Our students can meet with the career and employability team anytime for a career conversation, personalised CV and application support, interview preparation and job searching. They can also access one to one support, career development workshops/events and a range of current career and employability information.

This comprehensive support doesn’t stop after graduating! Our distinctive ‘Graduate for Life’ offer includes ongoing support whenever required, long after leaving university.

Nicola Smith is Head of Careers and Employability at the University of the Highlands and Islands. To find out more information on careers support or the employability week programme of events from the 26 April to the 30 April visit www.uhi.ac.uk/en/students/careers/current-students/



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.

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