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Star Trek Principal's log 2023: 'It's Life Jim but not as we know it'

By David Patterson

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Back in the day, when we were lucky enough to live in a house full of small children, I had to devise strategies to buy myself some peace and quiet.

'It will be life Jim, just not as we know it'. Star Trek was all about journeying into unknown space systems and colleges in Scotland are facing a similar journey of uncertainty.
'It will be life Jim, just not as we know it'. Star Trek was all about journeying into unknown space systems and colleges in Scotland are facing a similar journey of uncertainty.

One was to cook the Sunday dinner.

I would shut myself in the kitchen with a loud radio and some carefully budgeted ingredients and keep my kids out of that “hot and dangerous” place.

Another tactic was to decide that one of our rooms needed decorating, which given the succession of older houses we lived in, was usually the case.

College success story

I was a slow worker and could spend an entire weekend scraping wallpaper off walls, repairing holes and cracks in the plaster, and then repapering.

In those days of intricate wallpaper designs, I needed uninterrupted time to align all the rolls. I was pasting - or so I said. Barricaded in with a pasting table and box sets of classic Star Trek episodes to help me focus, I became an expert recluse able to paper over the cracks so well that hardly anyone could see the joins.

Those of us working today with public funding, have become very adept at papering over cracks.

The cracks though are getting impossible to hide.

My own, hopefully non-urgent, NHS checkup is well into its second year of delay.

Our excellent Moray firefighters can no longer respond directly to fire and smoke sensors triggered in our buildings, and we recently had a call from the police about an incident outside the college, where they asked us to respond to it.

Colleges across Scotland have been facing a triple whammy of an 8.5 per cent real terms reduction in government funding; nationally negotiated pay awards that are unfunded and so are unaffordable; and a marked decline in HE enrolments since the start of the pandemic.

The quantum of cost savings and staffing reductions in the biggest central belt colleges has been truly eye-watering.

Though the reductions needed by institutions across the UHI region might be smaller in absolute terms, they will have a much greater impact on the communities we serve.

David Patterson - Principal of UHI Moray.
David Patterson - Principal of UHI Moray.

Colleges are individually taking tough decisions right now, but are doing so in a policy vacuum where there is not yet a clear view from government what a much-reduced college sector should look like, nor how it should prioritise what it delivers.

If colleges are to transition to a new agenda, we need honest conversations about what that agenda will be, and how that transition can be funded.

We will also have to accept that colleges can no longer underpin gaps in their community’s social care services.

Here in Moray, this remains an exciting time for us, with several game-changing projects in train that have ring-fenced external funding (like the Growth Deal) to ensure that they can still happen as planned.

However, we know that Scotland’s colleges are in the throes of an existential crisis, and that we are far from immune to what is happening. While at the end of this crisis, most colleges will probably still exist, what and how they deliver will not be the same. In the words of Mr. Spock, “It’ll be life Jim, but not as we know it.”

David Patterson is the principal of UHI Moray, part of the University of the Highlands and Islands and one of millions of Trekkies across the world, fans of the sci-fi show Star Trek.

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