A UNIVERSITY for the Highlands has taken a huge leap forward, in a move that could inject £70 million into the economy every year.
Nearly 20 years after the campaign began, the Privy Council has awarded the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute (UHI) the power to award taught degrees. That is a key stage in gaining full university status, which will allow it to attract academics and students from around the world.
English institutions such as the University of Cumbria, which was inspired by UHI, achieved university status more quickly because the process is less rigorous down south.
In Scotland, new universities must prove they have a firm research base, which is not required south of the Border.
The Privy Council's decision, following a recommendation by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) for Higher Education, means from August UHI degrees will no longer have to be validated by the Open University. Fiona Hyslop, the education secretary, described it as a major milestone.
She said: "The establishment of a university would be a major accomplishment and a huge asset to the region."
Some 6,800 students study at university-level with UHI through a network of 13 colleges and research institutions and more than 50 learning centres in the Highlands and Islands.
Five new degree programmes are being launched in sustainable construction; childhood practice; oral health science; health and wellbeing, and adventure tourism management.
Professor Bob Cormack, UHI's principal, said its upgraded status would help it develop new courses and respond more efficiently to the needs of students and employers.
More than 160 million has been spent on the project, and it is estimated the university could be worth more than 70 million a year to the local economy.
William Roe, the chairman of Highland and Islands Enterprise said: "Having a university with taught degree awarding powers will make an enormous impact on the region educationally and accelerate economic growth more powerfully than could be achieved by any other single driver."
UHI was designated as a higher education institution in April 2001 and it had been hoped full university status would be granted by 2007.
However, the QAA said in October 2006 that more work needed to be done. It raised concerns about the number of honours graduates as well as collective decision-making among UHI's partners.