Interview: James Fraser, UHI principal

JAMES Fraser knows what it is like to have to leave home to get ahead in life. In the 1960s, he caught the bus out of the Highlands and headed for the city in search of a degree and a career. However, unlike many, he came back.

Now, as principal of the nascent university for the region, he is determined to create more opportunities for generations of young people coming up behind him, so they do not have to head south as he did.

Appointed principal of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in June, Mr Fraser was previously deputy principal, so is well aware of the issues facing the institution, which still awaits official university status.

Born in Wester Ross, he came from a family well used to leaving home to gain an education. He was the third on his mother's side to go to university and the second on his father's. He says: "With it was the idea you had to go away, so, growing up, success was associated with going away.

"That has a huge bearing on UHI, where we want to change that culture so people no longer associate success with going away."

It is an issue he has long been passionate about. In 2002, as UHI secretary, Mr Fraser launched a "boomerang" marketing drive to encourage students from the Highlands and Islands to return home to study.

Even then, he described this mass departure in search of education as a daunting prospect for many students, and expressed a dream that such young people would one day be able to take advantage of education opportunities on their own doorstep.

The dream has been long in the making. First mooted in 1992 by the former principal of Strathclyde University, Sir Graham Hills, the idea was treated with scepticism until Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth backed the formation of a Highlands university in 1996.

Within months, the Millennium Commission had approved a grant of 33 million. To date, more than 160m has been spent on the project, and it has been estimated that a further 100m needs to be spent over the next decade, although the economic return is reckoned to be 70m a year.

Designated a higher education institution in 2001, it had been hoped full university status would be granted by 2007. However, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) said in October 2006 that more work was needed. Last year, the Privy Council granted UHI the power to award taught degrees. UHI degrees no longer have to be validated by the Open University or by partner universities, such as Aberdeen.

Since its inception, UHI's distributed campus model has been held up as a template for English universities in rural areas, such as the University of Cumbria.

Cumbria has since achieved full university status, while UHI is still awaiting the golden stamp. The reason it takes so much longer to become a university in Scotland is because institutions north of the Border must have research departments, while in England they can be teaching only.

It is a wait that Mr Fraser is contented with. He said: "We would like to secure the title as soon as possible, but it is more important to be able to say it was severely tested and deserves the title it has. I have no complaints about the process, because we will be able to hold our heads up high."

He is hopeful the institute can achieve full university status by spring 2011, but that is now in the hands of the QAA and the Scottish Government.

"We are already producing students and graduates and they are gaining employment, which is a key test," he said.

So why the need for official status?

He says: "It signals to the world the worth of what you are doing. Parents want their children to go to university. It is a badge of quality, a benchmark which is really important."

He added that the status would attract more overseas students – a key source of income for universities, as those outwith Europe pay high fees.

He says: "A higher education institution is difficult to understand, so we don't expect to have many overseas students until we have university status."

The appeal of studying in the Highlands is likely to have strong resonance with nations with strong expatriate links to Scotland.

A handful of Canadians have already crossed the Atlantic to study at UHI, and that number is likely to swell with official university status. But the traditional overseas targets, India and China, are also in Mr Fraser's sights.

Already, UHI has international presence. When the job of principal was advertised, the opportunity to lead inception of the country's newest university drew candidates from around the world.

Applicants from Australia, Canada and New Zealand vied to replace Professor Robert Cormack upon his retirement. Ultimately, the university board, which is led by the former GTCS chief and Gaelic champion Matthew MacIver, announced an insider for the post in June. Mr Fraser was then the deputy principal and secretary.

At the time of the announcement, Prof MacIver revealed that Mr Fraser was the unanimous choice of the board.

He said: "Apart from his academic and management prowess, he is passionate about UHI. There could be no doubting his sheer commitment to the success of a university that will be vitally important to our region."

Raised in Inverinate, near Kyle of Lochalsh, Mr Fraser was schooled in Plockton and opted to study mental philosophy at Edinburgh University, gaining a first-class MA honours degree.

He then achieved his master's in education at Stirling, but the lure of home dragged him back from the Central Belt and he began his academic career lecturing in English and liberal studies at what was then Inverness Technical College and moved to senior management over 23 years at his alma mater, Stirling University, Queen Margaret College, now a university, and Paisley, which has morphed into West of Scotland University, before joining UHI in 2002.

When we meet in the controlled environment of the Royal Society of Edinburgh's rather esoteric library, he jokes that he should be in the Guinness Book of Records for being involved in the creation of three universities over two centuries.

He said: "So I know it takes a little time to create a university. I had always hoped in my lifetime something would be created in the Highlands and that I would be a part of it, and by serendipity I have."

Those on the UHI board who selected him for the role would argue that his appointment had nothing to do with luck.

Although the UHI catchment area contains 100 islands, he doesn't see small bases in remote places as subservient to the Inverness headquarters.

He sees the Inverness base as a "vibrant centre" which can beam products out to the 13 campuses. "What we really want to do is bring higher education to those communities, and not bring them out," he said.

Mr Fraser admits that he can't guarantee he would have stayed in the Highlands if UHI had existed back in the 1960s when he was leaving school, and he stresses that he doesn't believe everyone who lives there should stay.

He said: "I have no idea, I might still have gone away and I don't want to rob people of the chance to go away. What we want is to be able to give people the choice."