Shetland Times Column 22 March 2024

22 Mar 2024

Over 80 people walked together last Saturday along Commercial Street to demonstrate their concerns about the future of further and higher education and the proposed cuts in staffing at UHI Shetland.

It feels as though Shetland is sleep-walking into a situation where learning and skills training will be severely reduced in years to come. That will negatively impact individual learners and, ultimately, the wider local economy.

Shetland Islands Council separated itself from Train Shetland and Shetland College and they were merged two years ago along with NAFC Marine Centre under the UHI Shetland banner. Assurances were given during the merger process that the range and depth of courses would still be available.

UHI Shetland has had to make restructuring plans in order to meet Scottish Funding Council requirements for a financially sustainable budget. Cuts of around £1.2 million are sought this year with more to come in future years.

The loss of staff and the impact of a reduced education offer at UHI Shetland should concern us all.

The impact on Shetland will be especially significant for our young people, the vulnerable and those for whom school is not the answer.

Most at risk is the Community Learning and Business section which provides vital access level courses as well as the delivery of courses to students with additional support needs, in core skills, employability, hospitality, professional cookery, business and accounting.

At a time when hospitality is coming out the other side of all that the pandemic inflicted on it, and tourism is growing, it makes no sense that hospitality courses could be some of the first to get the chop.

In recent months I have been working with some individual knitwear designers and producers and it is clear from their experience that their needs in the creative industries sector have been allowed to drift. Who knows what the future holds for those individuals who have invested everything they have into their businesses, with demand growing for their products, and after spending years developing their creativity and learning skills at what was known as the Shetland College.

I can’t imagine a Shetland without our world-famous knitwear. It is embedded in our culture and heritage and is one of Shetland’s Unique Selling Points.  

Along with the loss of the cadet programme, it should serve as a warning of what is coming down the tracks.

I am supporting calls for UHI to pause the proposed budgetary reductions and redundancies, and for an Islands Communities Impact Assessment to be carried out.

To quote my MP colleague Alistair Carmichael, “removing provision in Shetland is to diminish life chances for our young people and economic opportunity for the islands”.