We have a potential new project brewing away that looks really exciting.  We’ve been very lucky the last few years to be allowed to grow our student numbers from within Scotland and have had strong support and a very clear focus on significantly increasing our numbers in the past 4-5 years having grown in that time by about 70%.  Its a huge achievement and has seen us focus on undergraduate programmes in the main.  Now we see a shift in our strategy, as we have reached our agreed limit, and now looking at how we can grow our rest of UK (RUK) and international numbers.

We do already of course have RUK and international students but the shift is to seek to grow those numbers as significantly as we have Scottish and EU students in the past few years.  The market though is of course really crowded and competitive and increasingly international.

Scotland and Scottish Universities continue to have a strong reputation for quality but high quality institutions are emerging all over the globe and international students in particular now have a huge array of choice.  RUK students similarly have the established institutions but there are new and often very well funded entrants particularly around London and niche providers with a strong focus in a particular field or type of programme all over the country.

We have our own strengths particularly with niche provision however we are looking more and more at the bigger opportunity.  One that we have spent a bit of time looking at is the MBA market.  We already have tow successful MBA programmes though until now they have been on campus programmes which will remain a key market for us, though we think there is a market for a more flexible global programme.

It’s difficult as the market is extremely crowded and it is I think almost impossible to develop a USP in such a crowded field.  The market though is not one single homogeneous market.  Though overall there are large student numbers globally there will be different types of consumers that value different elements of the offer.  We have been working with another University (not in the UK) to look at the market and to examine whether our combined strengths can help us come up with if not a unique product then at least a distinctive one.

I’m struck with how well we have worked together thus far and hopeful that we will get a product to market in the next 18 months to 2 years (which is not bad going with something so complex).  It has me thinking about the benefits of wider collaboration.  We are still a relatively new University (though we have a fair track record dating back now 20 years or so) but still a long way short of the ancients in Scotland which are hundreds of years old.  In being new we have perhaps a different perspective on the opportunities and threats facing higher education institutions and perhaps a more flexible approach to genuine collaboration and partnership working to develop new products and services.

Heres hoping anyway might be an interesting and very busy next few months.


We have a new postgraduate programme in development along with a partner University which looks potentially pretty exciting.  I’ve been working on it now a few months and I think e have the foundations in place to build an interesting and distinctive programme in what is a very crowded marketplace.

This process remains tricky there are more and more offerings out there and everyone trying to secure good student numbers. Some of the marketing spends for MBA type programmes are incredible but the competition for students very fierce.

I’ve been to a few postgraduate recruitment events recently which have been interesting and a couple have involved students and those vents have left me wondering how well the sector generally does relationship building and development.  there were stories at the events about students coming to the end of their undergraduate programmes and not being advised on postgraduate opportunities (leaving students thinking they wouldn’t then be eligible for whatever reason) and going looking elsewhere.  This despite what many of them said that they were happy where they did their undergraduate degree.  The onus on this model seems to be on the student to be active and go and find out what is happening and why the opportunities are for them and of course that is good and reasonable.  Perhaps though there is also an onus on the institution to think about nurturing that relationship for the longer term and not see it as only potentially a one off then as a possible route for alumni funding.

Selling at times in education seems a bit “dirty” when in reality we are a business at our core similar to others and in an increasingly crowded market place we need to think about how we attract new students but perhaps also we should think about the relationships we have already built, seek to make sure they are as well developed as they could be and look to continue to communicate and engage in a more pro-active way to let those people know of the opportunities we can continue to provide.

Social media

Have been doing a little work in the past few weeks around social media, perhaps but not solely inspired by me finally getting my act together and beginning my Doctorate (a DBA) with Glasgow Caledonian University.

Its my second attempt to get going with a Doctorate, a few years ago, back when I was teaching, I started an education doctorate.  I worked on it for two years then for some internal reasons had to take a break and when I returned tow years later I’d started a family and changed jobs a couple of times and kind of lost my way a little.

Am really looking forward to my DBA though (had intended to start 2 years ago but another change in job delayed things a little) and my focus is going to be I think on social media.

Originally my thinking was to look at it from the perspective of the management school and how we could use social media effectively to build a distinct and authentic brand within the overall University brand.  There are of course challenges for us in that as we are relatively new University operating in a very crowded marketplace.

My broader role though, over the last two years, and the evolution of my thinking and I am thinking of a different focus in exploring how students / customers utilise or engage with social media in the context of the University and examine whether there are differences between different types of students.

As a University learning technology is one of the key elements for us – without it we would really not be possible.  So technology is in many ways at the heart of who we are and what we do.  I wonder then if technology is or should be at the heart of how we communicate with current and potential customers / students.

I wonder though what the students are looking for.  Do they want an open conversation with us – which is I think one of the key things social media can help support.  I have a tourism project in operation at the moment and its one of the key areas there.  You look at the data available and the opportunities for the business to engage in the conversation with customers.  I know for me that engagement is often critical in making decisions about places to stay or restaurants to visit when I’m away.  It’s also striking how many businesses are not engaged in that conversation.

Is that though something students are looking for in engaging with a University.  There is certainly a conversation going on about their experiences online and the University should understand and I think be engaged in that and utilise the information gathered to help tweak and develop internal processes and practice to help align our vision and values to the real experience of our students.

I do wonder where the best practice is across the sector in terms of social media engagement and activity and how that translates into the University in terms of direct return on investment.  You can as I say see it in areas like hotels or restaurants and indeed many other sectors, but I’m really interested in exploring it more fully for my own sector and hoping through the next few years to help support our own approach to tailor it to the needs of our own market and different customer / student groups.


Donegal for SPARA 2020

Have been catching up this past week or so after a trip at the beginning of the month to Donegal in Ireland.

We are part of an NPA 2014-2020 project called SPARA 2020 which is about supporting remote and peripheral airports.

It was a really interesting and enjoyable trip, I got to catch up with colleagues who had worked on the preparatory project and meet some new people that have got involved in the full project.

We are working on a number of aspects of the project including remote training for staff working in airports, an economic impact toolkit to help those running such airports to make the case for enhanced investment and on the development of a framework for an innovation network to support airports into the future.

Our meetings were held interestingly at Donegal airport which was an excellent decision of our hosts the Northern & Western Regional Authority.  We got to see the airport in operation, meet a lot of the staff (who were absolutely excellent throughout), enjoy fantastic home cooked food and get a tour of the facility.

The airport is really impressive given that on quite a small number of passengers (around 40,000-50,000 per year) it manages to break even.  It of course requires investment for some of the large scale equipment on the airport including this:


Perhaps not the greatest picture I’ve ever taken but this is a fire truck that costs in excess of €500,000.  I even got to sit in it though not touch of course – full of very expensive looking computer control equipment.

They’ve also invested wisely for example have a very large hangar:


That has office space that is attractive when for example oil and gas activity is going on off the cost of Ireland.

They were a really impressive business with a lot of creativity around how they address particular challenges, though of course there are key constraints for example the investment in a fire truck that her’s hopping they never ever have to use in a real incident.

Airports are really interesting places as people rush to get through them fairly quickly and onto wherever it is they are going – but as business they face considerable challenges in getting links to locations people want to travel at prices they can afford and hence getting passengers into the building, of identifying other commercial opportunities that they can help to balance their finances and of course of dealing with a lot of very high cost requirements in terms of security and safety.

I’m really hoping our project can help address the challenges of airports that operate in remote and peripheral areas as they are so crucial to our business and social communities.  Am sure as some of our activity emerges and develops I’ll post the odd thought amongst in the blog.

An interesting couple of weeks

An interesting couple of weeks – the start of the year always has that hectic field and this year perhaps more than most (though that might be down to me getting older).

I’ve been out and about a bit with meetings at a number of our partners and also at a few UCAS fairs. Its really interesting to meet and talk to some of our potential students and of course customers and get a sense as to what they are interested in and looking to find out. Its really interesting research as much as anything and the differences based on location are quite intriguing.

In Edinburgh there was a lot of interest in our excellent equine business degree and in Aberdeen there was much more interest in our new professional golf degree (got some exciting developments coming shortly on that one). You really have to be on your toes at these events as enquiries can be very general but they can also be very specific within individuals really very well prepared and focussed.

This has been an interesting area even more so in the past few weeks as we are very focussed on the growth in student numbers at the University in the past few years and trying to maintain that again for this year.

We do a lot of course for students within the highlands and islands but part of our mission is to try to attract students from elsewhere in Scotland and the UK and I guess the UCAS fairs are a good way to gauge that interest.

We are finding more interest at least in our applications this year which is really good and I think indicates that word is getting out there about many of our programmes and hopefully that will translate into higher students again for this year.

We have been talking a fair bit though about that process and the journey for an individual in selecting a course and University and particularly the key steps leading to a decision.

Does for example a conversation at a fair help with that decision (what’s its level of importance?). UCAS have started tracking individuals at the fairs and some Universities have been paying to scan the students when they have discussion and it will I think be interesting to look at that data and see if it relates in any way to conversion to application. I think my feeling is that it often can be important but perhaps thats because we set aside such time to try to engage potential students and give out the badges, bags and of course prospectuses. I wonder if in these days of everything online that these connections, conversations and physical objects are important. Hopefully in the future that will become clearer, certainly hope its not all lost not sure I think that everything should be done online – but there again that might be me showing my age!

A new year

Its a little bit of a strange business I’m in I guess.  This is the beginning of our new year, the last few weeks have been reasonably quiet and I’ve had the chance to begin a little operational planning for the year ahead.  Now though we are in the throws of preparing for the beginning of the next academic year and our cycle begins again.

This is me entering my 21st year at working in this sector, a bit of a frightening thought, and it reminds me again of the real challenges of properly planning and preparing.

A long time ago I worked in a catering business and that was a very challenging environment and month to month sometimes quite difficult to plan for but when it came down to it we would know how many people we had at events and how many people to prepare for.  Day to day in the bar we ran there may be fluctuations – you’d think a Tuesday you would sell 100 sandwiches and there may be a rush on with more people coming in but there was always a bit of flex around that and by and large you were fairly accurate in your operational planning.

Our year always starts a lot more uncertain than that – we know how many people have applied and been interested in our courses but until they turn up first for induction and then for actual classes its really quite difficult to predict accurately.  There have been times when you expect 20 and get 40 or expect 20 and get 5.

Once we get started of course things can roll along nicely and you can prepare and operate with the numbers we get and the operation becomes a little easier but I always find this time of year really interesting just to see what actually emerges.

We worked really hard in the past year to redevelop some existing programmes and add in some new additions particularly in the sport area with programmes in outdoor, a sport and fitness degree and one in professional golf and you really want to see good student numbers on those and indeed all of the fantastic product, whether higher national, degree or postgraduate that we offer but especially new product the first year can be a touch uncertain.

The challenge especially with new product is that depending on when the programmes are approved the timeline for people top select them particularly with undergraduate programmes is so early – often the September / October the year before that its really the year following, once you have had a full year to market and promote that we see a better picture of numbers.

Am struck a little as I begin to prepare for the year ahead that a fair chunk of my time in the next few months will be spent at UCAS fairs promoting our wider product to school kids for entry next academic year.  I need to keep in mind the new developments we are working on this year for start next academic year.

Well lets hope the numbers are strong – we had a good year last year in terms of numbers and in terms of our student satisfaction results but there are always ways to keep moving forward.

India – the return

So have returned from an enlightening and really enjoyable trip to india.  I’ve been back a couple of weeks if I’m honest and catching up on things since then.

Our visit over there was to look at potential partners and we certainly found some strong potential partners through the visit.


It was my first time to india and it was a remarkable place, extremely friendly and very open.  We met some really fantastic people through the visits or where we were staying and I got the chance to meet staff and students at the partners which was really interesting.  I even got the chance to deliver a guest lecture which was an experience fun for me, described by a colleague as an “entertainment” but delivered a touch too quickly to be understood.  The lecture was on social media and I was struck in preparing it some of the key similarities in terms of trends and business opportunities and issues between Scotland and the UK and India which certainly seemed evident.

While the possible partnerships themselves seem a good base for UHI there were significant differences in some areas particularly around the way postgraduate teaching happens in India.  It was interesting to talk to colleagues about what they do and how they work and it certainly creates potential challenges for a partnership given the very different approaches but one that I do think both sides could potentially learn and develop from through some further partnership development.

They key will be to look at in the longer term.  There may be limited short term wins, with students undertaking any programme in a couple of years rather than now.  The challenge is to invest now in better understanding the differences and similarities, the reasons for those differences and working to find collective approaches that can be agreed and then delivered effectively on the ground.

Am really hopeful that we will be the chance to take those forward and that the visit to India (for work at least) won’t be my last.

One last photo from what was as I’ve said a really interesting visit and not maybe in the way I and initially thought or prepared for.  It was one that showed the similarities of us as people across different and diverse nations but also showed that we have developed different ways of working in areas like education.  We might feel that we are become g a more globalised place (and we are) but the subtle differences still give us much to learn from each other.