Exclusive:A Scottish university at war as bosses accused of 'intimidating' colleagues amid restructure row

Correspondence reveals behind-the-scenes row over UHI restructure plan

A huge row has erupted at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) amid claims senior figures have been “intimidating” bosses at Inverness College over a major restructuring drive, The Scotsman can reveal.

It has emerged the board of UHI Inverness, one of the largest of the 13 partner institutions that make up the university, has been repeatedly raising concerns about the ongoing reform process since October last year.

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The dispute has escalated in recent weeks, with the UHI Inverness board chairman Mark Sheridan accusing the chair of UHI’s ruling court, Alastair MacColl, of being “intimidating” in the way he responded to the warnings.

And he told the Scottish Government that mediation may be required as a result of the “aggressive position” taken by bosses at UHI’s court.

Graeme Dey, the further and higher education minister, has described the claims made by UHI Inverness as “of concern”, and he has discussed them with the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), which oversees the sector. It comes as UHI carries out a “comprehensive review” into its future, with a business case being drawn up for a new operating model.

Documents suggest the strategy could require legislation to change the legal structure of UHI, as it moves further towards becoming a “single institution”.

It could be the biggest shake-up of UHI since it was awarded university status in 2011 following a long campaign to create an institution that would allow young residents to stay and study degree-level courses in the region, rather than leave their communities.

Correspondence, released to The Scotsman under Freedom of Information laws, shows how senior figures at UHI Inverness questioned the “transparency of decision-making” at UHI’s executive office, as well as its “undue haste in implementing a target operating model without regard to meaningful consultation, options appraisal and detail in relation to financial matters and the rising deficits across the partnership”.

In March, Mr Sheridan, along with UHI Inverness vice-chair Dee Bird, warned of “serious concerns raised by the board, which need to be urgently addressed”. In a statement that was highlighted to UHI management and Government, they said that rising deficits “across much of the partnership of circa £15m are not being addressed holistically and pose a threat to the stability of UHI Inverness”, while also describing the “detrimental impact” of a “top slice” of higher education funding the partners pay towards the running of UHI’s executive office.

The board of UHI Inverness suggested a “pause” to the restructure process to consider various options.

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A response was sent by Mr MacColl, UHI court chair, and vice-chair Andrea Robertson the following month. They outlined the process to date and said the court saw “no reason to delay this critical work any further”.

The letter also “expressed concern” that information being passed to other members of the board of UHI Inverness may be “incomplete and/or out of date”.

The court formally requested to see all unredacted information, papers, briefings and data provided to the board of UHI Inverness.

Just a few days after receiving the letter, Mr Sheridan wrote a memo to the minister, Mr Dey, and SFC chief executive Karen Watt.

He wrote: “The response from the chair of court is intimidating and he does not address the issues raised by the board. He questions the integrity of the college executive management team and the capacity and ability of the board of management.”

Mr Sheridan added: “I am very conscious that this is a very unusual set of circumstances and ordinarily we would seek to resolve this matter amicably between court and the board.

“I am very concerned that this may not be possible given the aggressive position taken by the chair of court. It may be that mediation may be required to bring this to a reasonable outcome." Mr Dey responded last month, saying the restructuring would be a “complex and difficult process with everyone needing to work together in a constructive and collaborative spirit in order to maintain progress”. The minister added: “In this context your letter and subsequent email was of concern.” On May 15, the chair and vice-chair of UHI Inverness formally responded to the chair and vice-chair of UHI’s court, expressing “disappointment that the reasonable serious concerns and issues raised have not yet been addressed”.

They added the Inverness board did not agree to the new outline business case, or the target operating model process, being finalised “without scrutiny and due diligence carried out by our full board of management”.

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“Our primary concern is that our HE students are the most poorly resourced students in Scotland,” they said.

In a statement issued to The Scotsman this week, Professor Chris O’Neil, principal and chief executive of UHI Inverness, said: “UHI Inverness is recognised across the sector as a high-performing institution. We deliver an outstanding learning experience, and the priority of the board, senior management and our colleagues is to ensure that the maximum resources available are directed at teaching and supporting our students.

“We at UHI Inverness are involved in a rigorous debate about the future of the UHI partnership to ensure a target operating model will focus resources on the student experience. We work across UHI to ensure that its future can be planned and developed for the benefit of our students and the wider community.”

Mr Sheridan said: “The board understands the complexities of creating a target operating model with a view to restructuring the partnership, and as a result the partners need to scrutinise and analyse all the relevant data and information to ensure due diligence.

“It is important we adopt a constructive, collaborative and transparent approach, particularly with regards to the partnership’s financial position, to ensure that reasoned decisions are made that represent the views and needs of all the academic partners.”

A UHI spokesperson said: “Like all higher and further education institutions, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is navigating a challenging financial climate while prioritising growth and delivering excellent learning and teaching outcomes to its students and communities.

“UHI court, as the regional strategic body, holds accountability to the Scottish Government for the delivery of further and higher education and the good governance of its assigned colleges, including UHI Inverness. Any correspondence sent on behalf of UHI court to UHI Inverness board of management reflects that and our core values of collaboration, openness, respect, and excellence.

“The UHI partnership, including college principals and board chairs, have been working on a partnership-wide approach to implementing the UHI 2030 strategy, which includes UHI Inverness. “

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The spokesperson added: “We are pleased to note that the board of management at UHI Inverness has accepted an invitation for a meeting scheduled for later this month. UHI court looks forward to a positive and constructive discussion. UHI court remains committed to collaborating with all partners across UHI to drive growth and create opportunities for our students, staff, and communities, as outlined in our 2030 strategy.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is aware of the concerns raised by UHI Inverness about the manner in which plans are being taken forward by UHI court. 

“This is an internal matter for the university and the college, but we would encourage them to work constructively together to resolve these issues.”



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