The Information Society

A high-tech university

Preparation for the seminar:

In 1992, a University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) was proposed, initially to be based on existing institutions:

Education is an important cultural value in the Scottish Highlands, which is a problem since it encourages the drift of bright students to Aberdeen and Glasgow for university education. Attempts were made to establish a university in Inverness had been instigated in the nineteenth century, in the 1940s and in the post-Robbins* expansion in the 1960s.

Since the last rejection of Inverness two changes have occurred. Firstly, the traditional "Oxbridge" view of universities has changed with the emergence of the many new universities in the 1960s and the renaming of the polytechnics in 1992. Traditional Scottish universities were ancient and dominated Scottish education:

Secondly, the success of the Open University has called into question the traditional view of a campus. The present initiative is by the Highland Regional Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise who have already committed £400,000 to the project.

The intention is to create a federal structure teaching in both English and Gaelic, making extensive use of telecommunications to link together the various parts and to reach out to their students and teachers. The basis for this is Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), also known, jokingly, as Interfaces Subscribers Don't Need. The basic ISDN interface provides 2B+D channels, the D channel takes all the signalling necessary for the two 64,000 bit per second B channels which carry the voice or data (including slow scan video). The higher 'primary' access is 32B+D, has 32 voice or data channels. The educational uses include:

Remote access to the computer resources will allow students to dial-up services offering computer aided instruction, obviating the need for conventional lectures and shifting the focus to DIY teaching.

In 1989, the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) launched a Telecommunications Initiative, this was based on a report by management consultants. Part of the problem they identified was that much of the telephone switching equipment in the region was relatively recent and at an early stage in its cycle, so would not be due for replacement for many years, despite the fact that these switches would not support modern digital telephony and ISDN services. The consultants recommended the launching of a telecommunications initiative and the creation of an umbrella organisation for information services because:

The Telecommunications Initiative was to incorporate the needs of the large users in the region: Hydro-Electric, Post Office, Scottish Gas, Crown Office and courts, the emergency services and the Departments of Health, Employment and Social Security. This was seen as providing a base level of demand on which infrastructure and public services could be built.

Traditionally areas such as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland have been the last to receive new developments in telecommunications, as exemplified by the poor state of the telecommunications infrastructure in the late 1980s, with limited digital capacity and often only noisy analogue lines. The HIDB put up £4.9 million to persuade BT to spend £11.35 million to bring forward the introduction of Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) to forty-three telephone exchanges, later expanded to sixty-five exchanges:

We are about to make the leap from being the poor relations in the field of information technology, to being European and world leaders, with the power to compete for business with cities and top commercial centres anywhere else. [Sir Robert Cowan, Chairman, HIDB.]
It was believed that a 'window' of three to five years had been created. The ISDN network was in place in 1993.

By the standards of the HIDB this was an enormous investment, which had to be approved at Cabinet committee level, with the promise of five hundred jobs being created for each of the following ten years. The aim was to encourage companies based in the South-East of England to relocate in the so-called 'Top Country' using the sophistication of Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) to offer the same (or better) service to their customers, but at lower costs. Telecommunications was to be used to overcome the barriers of geography.

Money was also provided by the European Commission and the HIDB participated in two projects in the EC's initiative for Research for Advanced Communications in Europe (RACE):

Recognising the traditional four year Scottish degree might be too long a period to stay in the Highlands and Islands, it was proposed that some courses be of one year duration leading to MSc, MA and MPhil degrees. The possible value of summer schools was also recognised. UHI is also intended to address the local need for post-experience courses, for example, in management which are vital to sustaining a modern economy. By using telecommunications technology it could do so despite the low population density of the region. It is intended that UHI have as a partner a major European university.

The administration of such a dispersed institution could be overwhelming, as the University of Ulster has discovered being scattered across Northern Ireland. However, the use of telecommunications is intended to avoid these problems.


Prof Sir Graham Hills (1992).

UHI News.