Comment: New rural education power takes to the European stage

Mike Russell, left, Lord Lindsay, Richard Lochhead and students from SRUC
Mike Russell, left, Lord Lindsay, Richard Lochhead and students from SRUC
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THIS morning, some 8,000 students and 1,500 staff from Barony, Elmwood and Oatridge colleges and the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) will become Scotland’s Rural College or, when its ambitions are fulfilled, Scotland’s Rural University College (SRUC).

The link-up of the four-land based colleges was mooted a number of years ago by former SAC principal Bill McKelvey, but the idea only took off with Scottish Government approval for the amalgamation of effort and resources.

The SRUC will be the largest land-based establishment in Europe. Uniquely, it will not only provide education but also carry out research and provide consultancy advice. These three strands are seen as the key to bringing maximum benefits to the rural sector.

Speaking prior to today’s launch, SRUC chairman Lord Jamie Lindsay said he believed the time was right for SRUC to be established because the need for rural and land-based research, education and consulting had never been more important.

He praised the unique set-up as a model the rest of the world would look to enviously. “No other country has this degree of integration, apart from, possibly, the land-based colleges in the United States,” he said.

Although they will be part of a much larger organisation, Lord Lindsay said, the students would find little change in their everyday life, with courses continuing to be delivered in the same place, at least in the short term.

He added that this might not be a forever-and-a-day policy as, “in due course we will take a considered decision on what courses we will deliver and where we shall deliver them.” He admitted to being attracted to the idea of centres of excellence where specialist subjects would be the focus.

While the SRUC comes into existence today, the “university” part of the title is silent until it has degree-awarding powers, which should be in place by 2014.

Lord Lindsay also confirmed that the SRUC would continue to operate out of the six campuses in Edinburgh,
Aberdeen, Ayr, Dumfries, Cupar and West Lothian, and students would not have to change their place of study.

Elmwood runs a number of non land-based courses and while this would continue for the coming educational year, talks were ongoing with Fife College on provision.

Commenting on staffing at SRUC, a spokeswoman said there was a “planned and prioritised programme to introduce the structure, resources and staffing required to advance our business needs across Scotland”. She confirmed employment rights were transferred with all the staff of the four colleges and that no compulsory redundancies were planned. There was, however, a voluntary severance scheme for which there were no specific targets.

The one part of the SRUC which will retain its title is SAC Consulting, which has more than 12,500 customers. This advisory service has been a major revenue earner for SAC and it has expanded in recent years, not just in professional advice to farmers but by taking on priority projects for the Scottish Government relating to climate change and carbon capture.

Lord Lindsay said SAC Consulting was now such a recognised brand that it was only sensible to keep the name meantime.

Looking at the big picture, he said: “Within the lifetime of today’s SRUC students, world food production must almost double to feed the growing population.

“This must be done on less land with diminishing resources, while protecting the environment and addressing the challenges posed by climate
change.

“In addition, the growing need for innovation in the rural industries and increasing diversity in food production means ever more complex jobs requiring appropriately skilled people.

“Here in Scotland, we need to continue to raise the competitiveness of the agri-food industry, which is currently worth over £12 billion a year.”

One of the main architects behind the SRUC organisation, Scottish Education Secretary Michael Russell, said he believed the new college would play a key role in ensuring young people were fully equipped to become the rural workforce of the future.

“This will be a win-win for students and our economy,” he said.

Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead described the merger as helping to ensure that Scots had access to the highest-quality training and research.