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North Highland College Awards 18 September 2004

Welcome Speech By Principal Rosemary Thomson
Lord Lieutenant, distinguished guests, ladies, gentlemen and graduates

It is a great pleasure to welcome you here to assist in this ceremony which recognises the effort and achievement of all our higher education graduating students for the past academic year. In addition to those attending in person, we recognise that many are unable to come because they have started employment outwith the area or already embarked on a new period of study. This ceremony today reflects our ever increasing role within the UHI, with students graduating from 17 Higher National Programmes and 5 Degree programmes. Next year there will be many more, including post-graduate research degree awards for the first time.

It is important to recognise that the 82 students graduating represent only a small number of students who secured qualifications this year. NHC is a community college providing for all post-school learners across Caithness, Sutherland, Easter Ross and Cromarty. A coverage equivalent to an area the size of Wales, a fifth of the UK. Approximately 75% of our provision may be deemed further education, leading to Scottish national and vocational qualifications, for example in areas such as Care, Hospitality, Vet Nursing and so on. In recognition of this, the College graduation ceremony will be extended next year to ensure that all those who obtain full awards may attend the College, some for the first time.

Over the past year the College has also further consolidated its partnership with 9 of the larger secondary schools across the North Highland area through their “Determined to Succeed” initiative (from Farr in the West to Alness and Invergordon in the south) offering vocational programmes such as engineering, construction, IT, Hair & Beauty.. This programme has proved highly popular with school pupils allowing them the freedom to explore career options on programmes which also provide real qualifications. Ambitious plans are under development with the Education Department to extend this particularly for the Wick and Alness areas.

Support for social inclusion by the college
The College is committed to assisting those who may be excluded due to their additional learning needs and has developed innovative programmes to assist them. The age range of students accessing this provision varies between 16 and 60 and numbers have increased again from 58 last year to 64 this year. For many years now the College has provided programme for those with additional needs. Three programmes are available to assist progress to independence, mainstream study or work wherever possible. These are respectively Learning for Life, Learning for Work and the Jobs4All social firm initiative.  This year 4 candidates secured work or went onto mainstream study. These programmes offer a better future not only for the student but only to their family and carers as well. It is always challenging work and at times difficult for staff, especially last year when one of our severely physically disabled students – Gemma died at the age of 21, she had been in the College for nearly 2 years where for the first time she was able, through the use of IT based assistive technology, to express her own opinions and make choices.  I remember her excitement when staff took her on a dedicated course of retail therapy to Inverness, something every other young 21 year old would expect as the norm.  Initially only available in Thurso , they are now offered in Brora thanks to our partnership with Highland Council. Next year we hope to extend this provision still further.

The Broad Base of Further Education
Further education provides the springboard for the overwhelming majority of all our young people.  A recent report has highlighted that further education provides the springboard for employment and higher education for the majority (60%) of Scots.

The College is now in the process of consolidating and realigning its FE programmes to ensure lifelong learning opportunities and access to more advanced programmes across the breadth of the curriculum, for example the additional construction skills programme already mentioned.  To ensure provision for those in the more remote areas of the north and west, we are developing curriculum to support high quality tourism in particular and small businesses in general, through remote curriculum delivery in areas as diverse as front-of house-operations, beauty &complementary therapy, drama & music, e-business etc.  Whilst it is not possible for us to keep extending our physical estates we will continue to work in partnership with smaller communities such as Strathy, Lairg and Helmsdale, where we have just installed 8 computers in their new community centre, to provide courses relevant to their area. For example, the care and hospitality sectors are vital to our social and economic development. We are working to establish new SVQ awards in Cleaning Services designed to address the well publicised difficulties experienced by these sectors.

Our Online Projects unit is well established and complete courses can now be taken in Care, Hospitality, Vet Nursing, Equestrian Studies etc, where students receives both support and sometimes assessment online leading to a full SVQs. We are adding to our portfolio at an ever-increasing rate.

HE Role
The long anticipated shift to the knowledge based economy is now upon us with higher national qualifications being the accepted standard of competence. The tyranny of geography will be minimised for us all through the use of services such as Broadband. Opportunities must be seized to build knowledge-based industries, exploiting large scale developments such as decommissioning, and high value small businesses. The decision by the Board of Management to sign up to UHI reflects this need as the vibrant, energetic and innovative environment of a University will foster these developments. UHI is applying for its own degree awarding powers next summer and is expecting to achieve full university title by 2007. Our engagement in UHI is both a natural response to the challenge of globalisation and needs of the area rather than academic mission drift. The College, through UHI, has and will continue to develop and lead higher national and degree provision in appropriate areas of opportunity for the North Highlands, such as business and golf management; music, history, heritage studies. Our Dornoch and Alness Colleges assume leading roles here. We are establishing a UHI Professorial Chair of the Highlands & Islands History Research Centre, in Dornoch, with interviews to be held next week. Dr Bayliss will expand further on our developments in engineering where again we provide leadership for UHI at this level.

Of particular relevance to Wick is our intention to support Touring Theatre training with further developments of both the curriculum, to a full BA, and the estate in Pulteney. Talks have already taken place with all stakeholders, the Enterprise Network, Highland Council etc with a view to securing European support for the necessary upgrading of our own premises and new build by the Pulteney Peoples’ Project. This will, of course, also tie in directly to further developments in Pulteney which were referred to in the Press yesterday and the schools initiatives.

The establishment of the ERI, 5 years ago reflects our commitment to environmentally sound development of the North Highland area and our support for UHI in its drive for University status through “Blue Skies” research such as the climate change and environmental sensitivity. The College is working with UHI and other partners to secure funds which will ensure that the excellent grade received at the last Research Assessment Exercise can still further improved upon. This in turn will attract increased HE research funding and funding from the Research Councils. The ERI is now widely acknowledged as a key provider of analytical services for the Scottish aquaculture sector, replacing the need to use services only available in Ireland or New Zealand. Applied research in the application of waste management strategies for sustainable development are provided for major industries such as distilling and both rural and urban communities. Again, we are working with Highland Council in both the fields of waste management strategies and renewables.

The ERI is already routinely attracting applications from International scientists interested to work in one of their research teams (we had over 700 applications for the 5 recent PhD positions). Through our university partnerships across Europe, the ERI provides research placement opportunities for over 30 students annually for periods of a month or more.

Principal Investigator teams. It is pleasing to see that staff within the ERI over the past year have still managed to maintain their links with the local schools, hosting aspiring young scientists on Nuffield scholarships, through for example. Interestingly, it is now securing commercial income stream and approaching full financial viability.

The undoubted success of the ERI provided the College and its partner funders, HIE and ERDF, with the confidence to go forward with the establishment of a designated centre to provide training, research and consultancy for the decommissioning of nuclear and other industrial installations. The Director and one of the senior consultants are already in post with a team of five research students.

Political Influences in the College
The North Highland catchment area includes some of the most remote communities in Europe, suffers from demographic decline in population (minus 4%, second only to Western Isles of 10%) unfortunately this is concentrated in the loss of both young school leavers and adults. The average GDP outwith the Inverness area is still substantially below that of the rest of Europe. Again, UHI is an important attractant.

The College must respond to this challenge but faces a period of financial uncertainty particularly over the next 3 years. Both under provision and under funding of FE is accepted by the Funding Council yet demand has never been higher. The College is capped on its delivery of FE programmes and not funded for the extra 10% at least we deliver year on year. FE provides excellent value for money since in addition to National Certificate programmes it contributes to at least 25% of all higher education delivery in Scotland, and at a per capita rate (35-55%) very substantially lower than that the established Universities are able to achieve.

It is of interest to note, therefore, that whilst the majority of FE colleges support a proposed merger of the now separate Further & Higher Education Funding Councils, the universities do not. The FE Colleges which are also UHI partners, including NHC, have a difficult choice. Whilst merger must be seen as an efficient route for the distribution of funding, we must not allow it to undermine the FE function that we deliver to our local communities. It is important that the autonomy of our Board of Management is maintained so that we can provide a local service in response to local demand.

Of the 46 Colleges in Scotland, the majority operate within the central belt with a high population density. All Colleges are obliged to operate under the same funding regime, however, the designated remote and island college group, of which NHC is one, does receive a remoteness element. This is now under review and it is crucial to our financial stability that the Council recognises the need for this additionally funding and moreover it is extended to UHI for our HE work in remote areas.

The public is perhaps not aware of the fact that only 50% of our core funding is derived from the Funding Councils, the remainder of our income is derived from government sponsored programmes, such as the Apprenticeship schemes, New Deal Modern Apprenticeships. We were informed late last session that these programmes will be substantially reduced in future. The closure of our Programme Centre Plus initiative was a particular blow since last year the college supported over 300 unemployed individuals, of which over 34% entered employment directly, and many of the remainder provided with training opportunities to secure work in future.

The European programme which has provided for so much of the development funding for the College estate and new programmes over the last few years, will also close in 2007. Any further programme, if it exists, will not be as generous and will be more competitively fought. We will continue to access European monies for as long as possible to allow us to develop new curriculum where opportunities are emerging.

Despite these difficulties, The Board of Management supported and encouraged the College to grow. The College now employs over 300 staff; 123 full time staff and188 part time staff to ensure both curriculum and geographic coverage. Our commitment to quality is now underwritten by a very substantial in-house teacher training scheme. Attracting appropriate staff has been difficult at times due to the negative press surrounding the reduction in level of services available at Caithness General Hospital in Wick.

It is vital that the College develops alternative income streams to fill the ever widening funding gap. The ERI, the new Decommissioning Centre and our Online development unit were all development with a view to providing real commercial opportunities, whilst enhancing our curriculum, quality and coverage at all levels. Cumbria and Dumfries & Galloway.

Employers and the public could also assist greatly by sponsoring students who are often deterred by the perceived high cost of education. For example, the existing Framatome scheme is being extended this year with the assistance of contractors associated with large scale decommissioning projects.

Address to the Students
I would like to finish my address with a few words to the graduating students. Much has been expected of you during your programme of study, you have been supported, on occasion hassled and harried by your tutors, at times cajoled, to complete assessments and prepare for examinations. We know that it has been tough to forgo social and family events, especially as so many of you have been studying part time and all have families of your own. This enhances your achievement. It is of the greatest importance to recognise not just what you have learned but that you have learned and achieved at an advanced level. This ability will never leave you and you can build on this throughout your career.

The tinkerbell factor - The last man standing
Expect much of yourselves. Carry your dreams and ambitions with you, rather than see them as a destination that way. You can then, as events dictate, modify or enlarge them. You will shape our knowledge-based society rather than be overtaken by its waves.

The College will always be there for you – if we can’t help we will find someone who can.

Congratulations to each and every one of you.

Speech given by Dr Colin Bayliss, director of UKAEA's Major Projects and Engineering Division
I am delighted to be here today for this presentation of awards to North Highland College students. To hold this presentation in Wick clearly shows that North Highland College is truly a college serving the North with learning centres in Wick, Dornoch, Alness complementing the main college centre in Thurso. It is also worthy of note that the College plays a key role in the management of Argyll College in Bute. This visionary aspect of the College management coupled with its status as a Partner College of the UHI Millennium Institute, has led to a great success in providing education and training across a wide geographical area to the benefit of northern communities.

UKAEA has always supported North Highland College and sees it as our main training provider. This support embraces all the skills training we need from apprentices right through to high level research. The fact that the College covers both Further Education and Higher Education has to be seen a great benefit to the community and one which must continue.

We actually have 114 people attending courses at NHC this year; the range of courses goes from vocational right through to 7 staff on degree courses. Of the total some 71 of the students are on science and engineering courses. These levels of interest mean that a first class educational infrastructure can be set up which will encourage other businesses to want to come to Caithness where they will be able to benefit from a willing and well educated workforce.

The Decommissioning programme at Dounreay is going to rely on a supply of suitably trained staff across all our business activities. For example last year we announced the setting up of a pilot scheme with the aim of creating the first Modern Apprenticeship in Nuclear Operations and Decommissioning in the UK. An initial five young people were recruited, including one from the company RWE Nukem, to begin their apprenticeship last August. This has been seen to be very successful and the programme is continuing with the further appointment of five apprentices this year. The traditional craft, scientific, technical and secretarial training continues to be relevant in the new era of environmental restoration but it is just as important that we tailor our apprenticeships to deliver high quality operators and supervisors with a particular focus on decommissioning.

This new era of decommissioning and environmental restoration presents numerous opportunities for local industries and economies to benefit. One of the best ways to maximise this potential is to invest in youth development, and these apprenticeships will build upon the existing opportunities for young people at Dounreay.

The apprentices will gain vocational qualifications at both levels 2 and 3, which will require a programme of safety training backed up by basic training in construction skills, electrical and mechanical safety, UKAEA training courses and personal coaching. Assessment will be carried out at work placements including operational plants dealing with decommissioning waste, laboratories and decommissioning plants, as well as off-site placements with local construction companies and other related businesses. The apprentices will attend North Highland College in Thurso on a day-release basis to complete both the National Certificate in Processing and the City and Guilds Radiation Safety Practice Part One certificate, with the possibility of progression to an HNC. They will join other UKAEA apprentices on Outward Bound training at Locheil and will take a full part in community activities.

Caithness and Sutherland Enterprise is providing financial assistance towards the Modern Apprenticeships and see them as a real success story in Caithness and Sutherland, providing an excellent opportunity to acquire qualifications while earning and gaining essential work experience. It is very important to the community that CASE maintains its level of support here.

Also the North Highland College now offers the new Higher National Certificate in Nuclear Decommissioning. This course is offered on a day release basis and lasts for two years and it is pleasing to record that UKAEA have 8 people studying for this qualification. UKAEA certainly see this as an extremely desirable qualification for operators and supervisors and is an essential stepping stone for a future degree course.

The major developments are, of course, the new Decommissioning and Environmental Remediation Centre (DERC), and the Trials, Training and Test Facility (TTTF) which are both being built at Janetstown. DERC will work closely with industry partners such as UKAEA to develop advanced tuition and research programmes to ensure local expertise is available for the work needed at Dounreay. Funding was secured from the European Regional Development Fund and Highlands & Islands Enterprise for the venture. CASE has noted that these are ambitious projects which are set to have a major impact on the economy of Caithness and Sutherland and the wider Highlands and Islands; the TTTF will provide an ideal location to undertake a number of trials and tests relating to decommissioning projects at Dounreay and also provide a safe environment for the training of personnel who will be undertaking these projects. Programmes will be provided for a wide range of specialist subjects for research students at both Masters and PhD level.

The developments taking place at Janetstown underline the skills, enterprise and opportunity that decommissioning of Dounreay is nurturing. We want to work with the public and private sector to make the most of these opportunities and so enhance the national and international reputation of the Highlands as a centre of excellence in decommissioning. The skills development that is needed are not just nuclear skills, there will be a significant demand for project management, cost estimating, contract management and administrative qualifications.

These new Centres, operated by JGC Engineering and Technical Services on behalf of HIE, represent a unique resource for the area. North Highland College has trained engineers and scientists for the Dounreay plant since 1956 and has steadily increased its provision to include advanced study in engineering and radiation science; DERC will take this a step further to post-graduate level courses, research and consultancy. These skills can also be used in other industry sectors such as oil, gas and renewables. DERC’s advanced laboratories, together with the close affinity to the Trials, Training and Test Facility, will ensure that novel solutions can be developed and fully tested in a realistic environment.

UKAEA is also supportive of the nuclear training initiatives at the new University of Manchester and those sponsored by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council; it is very encouraging to see the collaboration emerging between North Highland College and these new UK initiatives. It is also very encouraging to see cooperation developing between NHC and Cumbria, which is where BNFL have their Sellafield site which also has a large decommissioning activity. Both the College and UKAEA have been directly involved in addressing the proposal for a National Nuclear Academy, based in Cumbria, which is intended to introduce a measure of standardisation in nuclear skills training across the UK.

I think that most of you will be aware that UKAEA has close contacts with a number of overseas nuclear organisations and as a result of our working together with the French we are supporting a new European Masters degree in Nuclear Technology, which has a strong decommissioning content, and which involves cooperation between UHI and universities in France, Italy, Spain and Lithuania and is receiving funding assistance from the European Commission. This is a first for the UK and within UKAEA we see this as very positive contribution to broadening our staff’s expertise through continuing professional development.

I am aware that the College is equally pro-active in supporting the development of initiatives for other sectors such as heritage related tourism. The addition of a fourth honours year to the BSc Environment & Heritage also provides for advanced tourism related studies. Complementary research will be pursued through the establishment of the History of Highlands & Islands Research School which will be based through the NHC in Dornoch.

It is in the interest of all of us to ensure that the economic development of the area is complemented by social and cultural development initiatives, so that those who wish to develop their careers within the area are confident that they and their families can enjoy a high quality of life.