Nursing in the Highlands and Islands: An interview with Professor Annetta Smith

To mark International Nurses Day, we caught up with Professor Annetta Smith, Head of the Department of Nursing and Midwifery, to ask her about careers in nursing, working in the Highlands and Islands and the impact of COVID-19.

Can you describe your career and how it led to your current position?

Most of my career as a nurse has been spent in education. When I was working as a nurse in clinical practice, I always had a particular interest in teaching nursing students. My first teaching post was in the Highlands and Western Isles College of Nursing and Midwifery, I spent almost 19 years working with the University of Stirling where I held various senior positions before joining the University of the Highlands and Islands as Head of Department in 2017. Alongside nurse education I have developed a number of research interests over the course of my career and completed my PhD in 2008. It has been a privilege to able to combine my two interests of nurse education and health research during my career and I was delighted to be awarded the title Professor of Nursing in 2018.

Our university partnership took over delivery of pre-registration nurse education in the region in 2017. How has the department developed since then?

There have been so many significant developments that have happened since we became an academic department in the university in 2017. We have grown quickly and diversified our activity. Our undergraduate student nurse numbers have increased significantly, we offer a successful MSc programme in advanced nursing practice / advanced professional practice and our shortened post-registration midwifery programme has helped to ensure midwives have been prepared to work in our Highland and Island communities. The number of PhD students supervised by our department continues to grow and our researchers are making an important contribution to new emerging health evidence through research grant activity, academic publications and knowledge exchange. 

What have been the highlights over the last five years for you?

It has been an incredibly exciting five years, supporting both the transition of nurse education into the university and the rapid growth of all the department teaching and research activity. The highlights are always our students. Although we could not have a physical graduation last year because of the pandemic, our first nursing, midwifery and advanced practice students graduated from the university and are now working across the Highlands and Islands, throughout the UK and beyond. From a more personal perspective, I have had the opportunity to work with colleagues both in the UK and globally across education, research and policy activities and have enjoyed the opportunities these collaborations have offered and it has been a privilege to make that wider contribution to the nursing profession.

Why is nursing a good career option?

Nursing is a varied, complex and multi-skilled profession and nurses work in many diverse settings and the career opportunities are almost endless. Nurses can be found in every health care setting, they are at the front line of care delivery, often leading and delivering specialist services. Nurses make an important contribution to service delivery in social care and third sector agencies, can work in the private sector and prison services. Nurses are healthcare management leaders, academics and researchers. There are too many career options to identify them all, but there are multiple career possibilities to suit anyone interested in becoming a nurse.

What is different about being a nurse in the Highlands and Islands?

In many respects it doesn’t matter where nurses work, the patients regardless of where they live are always the most important focus for what nurses do. Being a nurse in the Highlands and Islands gives us the opportunity to live and work in one of the most beautiful parts of the UK. Very often nurses live in the communities that they work in and that can also bring its own challenges and rewards, but the rewards will always outweigh the challenges. 

What is special about the University of the Highlands and Islands nursing courses?

All of our courses are developed in close partnership with our health service colleagues and that joint approach helps to ensure that our courses are highly relevant for our students and for their professional development and competence. We have two campus sites, in Inverness and Stornoway, our campus in Stornoway in the Western Isles is unique to the UK as it provides an opportunity for nursing students to undertake their programmes in an island setting. All of our students have the opportunity to experience such a wide diversity of placements across the Highlands and Islands, that includes opportunities for unique remote and rural experiences of healthcare.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the department over the last year?

Like many similar departments to ours across the UK, the impacts have been significant. Over the past year students have mainly been taught online and, importantly, they have made a significant contribution in their clinical practice education to the COVID effort and we are very proud of that contribution. The department staff have gone above and beyond to ensure all our courses continue to run and that students are well supported. We have learnt a lot in the process and particularly how we deliver our programmes and to make the most of the technology available to us. We have really missed our more regular face to face contact with both our students and with our department colleagues and are looking forward to resuming that contact when we are able to do so. 

As well as teaching nursing and midwifery students, the department is also involved in research. Can you tell us about some of the current projects?

Health research is an important component of what we do and it is not possible to list every project, but this is a flavour of what department staff and students are currently working on, often with other external collaborators. Staff and doctoral students continue to contribute to the global effort of the COVID-19 pandemic by exploring the impact on people’s health and healthcare to inform supportive interventions. We are conducting research on physical activity in young people, end of life care and the provision of safe medication use for older people with sensory impairment. Our research activity is impact focused and aims to contribute to knowledge that will help to improve the health and illness experience of the population.  

You will be retiring this summer. What are your hopes for the future of nursing education in the Highlands and Islands?

We know that when nurses and other healthcare workers have access to their education programmes close to home they are more likely to choose to stay in the same area to work when they qualify or are more likely to return in time. This factor is so important to the provision of healthcare delivery throughout the Highlands and Islands and to the sustainability of that delivery. Given the significant growth and achievements of the department over the past five years, I am confident that education and research activity will continue to develop and innovate, and that the department will continue to be known for its excellent provision nationally and globally whilst working closely with our local partners to support healthcare education throughout the Highlands and Islands. 

To find out more about health and wellbeing courses at the University of the Highlands and Islands, visit  www.uhi.ac.uk/en/courses

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/



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.