The Scotsman
30 May 2001, Martin Osler

New education services are allowing people to study in the remotest parts of Scotland.

On a very clear day, the Uist archipelago in the Western Isles sparkles from its blue sea like a stellar constellation. As we approached the Benbecula airstrip it displayed its full glory. If anything gives you an idea of how tiny and dispersed the communities of the Western Isles are then it is this bird’s eye view from the flight.

There are 6,000 people living on the Uists, made up by Benbecula, North Uist and South Uist. A further 1,500 live on the isle of Barra. In total that would be the average attendance at one home football match for Dundee this season.

It would be natural for someone who lives in a city to ask how these island communities exist from year to year. Certainly the land is beautiful, with stunning views, and the communities are rich in history and culture. These are important places in the evolution of Scotland. But how do they meet the demands of the 21st-century economy? Where do people work, how much do they earn, what is their economic future?

David Green, Principal of Lews Castle College, says: “It is incredibly difficult. We are well aware that UHI (the project to create a university in the Highlands and Islands) and the individual colleges in this area have a vital role to play in addressing this issue, far more than colleges elsewhere in Scotland. “We need to use technology properly and offer excellent online learning opportunites to people across the Western Isles. Then we must use this to raise skills levels so that when employers look at where to locate their businesses they consider the islands.

“One of our principal objectives is to keep a proportion of young people on the islands, longer than they would otherwise stay. Ideally, we would want them to have the opportunity for well-paid employment that will allow them to stay and contribute to the economic well-being of the islands, but we can’t manage that on our own.”

The trip to the Uists and Barra was to award Learndirect Scotland status to two learning centres. One, Colaisde Bheinn na Faoghla on Benbecula and the other, the Barra Learning Centre in Castlebay. Both centres are part of the network of learning centres run by Lews Castle College whose original campus is in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis.
To achieve Learndirect Scotland status, learning centres have to meet benchmarks set down by the Scottish University for Industry (SUfI). This means that they provide flexible learning opportunities at a time, place and a pace that suits the learner. In becoming branded by Learndirect Scotland, the centre joins the national network of learning centres being set up by SUfI across the country. To date there are 93 of these.

The IT company Iomart in Stornoway relocated to Lewis in part because the college provides IT courses and is producing a well-qualified potential work-force.

Nineteen-year-old Calum MacAuley from Sollas in North Uist, who studies at Colaisde Bheinn na Faoghla, is benefiting from the learning revolution taking place in the islands.

“When I left school I went into scallop fishing but did not see a future in it. So I went back to college to do a GSVQ Level 2 IT course through the Benbecula learning centre.

“I love it and want to stay on the island. I’ll do a business administration qualification next year and then try and get into business.

“After sixth year at school everyone here used to have to leave the island to go to college. But now they know that the learning centre lets them continue their studies here. It’s keeping a lot of young folk on the island.”

Lews Castle College offers courses using video-conferencing, e-mail and internet as well as traditional teaching techniques. Courses on offer at the Bebnecula and Barra centres range from Gaelic Language and Music, Art and Design, to Business Studies, Computing and Information Technology and Rural Development.
Margaret Elder is doing a BA in Rural Development at the Barra Learning Centre in Castlebay. It is the first UHI degree to be delivered via video-conferencing.

“In a small rural place, there is a need to be vigilant that the quaility of life is not ignored. I was affected by issues surrounding the plane service, (Barra has the only UK beach runway) and about the sustainability of shellfish harvesting.

“Since I have three young children, finding the time for learning isn’t easy, but the course is fantastic. It is geared to gaining an open outlook on all aspects of rural development. I now understand so much more about social policy and about rural issues throughout Europe.”

Learndirect Scotland was officially launched earlier this year to promote learning – from basic computing through to degree courses – throughout Scotland. It does this through its free phone help line number 0808 100 9000. Advisers direct callers to over 61,000 learning options. To give our quality assurance stamp to two centres in the Western Isles was a great boost to our overall aim. To see learners in action at the centres, improving their job prospects and developing new skills, was inspiring.

Gordon Wells, Centre manager at Colaisde Bheinn na Faoghla, says:
“It’s definitely a step along the way. It puts the skills in place and it boosts the confidence in people and communities who already have strong traditions of both working together and good old-fashioned DIY self-reliance. With these new facilities we can offer choices that weren’t available before, and help release the human talent that is here in abundance.

“ We’ve already seen students coming off the end of our courses and setting up their own businesses. We’ve also begun to attract incoming students from the mainland and from overseas to follow our more distinctive programmes in Art and Design, and in Gaelic Language and Music, which exploit our local natural and cultural heritage. That pays dividends all round. It means our student community is healthily mixed, and we’re doing our own little bit for inward investment as well.”