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Life happens and plans change – surprising start to year included discovery of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC)

By David Patterson

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What an unexpected start to the new academic year at UHI Moray!

One of the wings at UHI Moray has been closed.
One of the wings at UHI Moray has been closed.

It all began as planned. In the first two weeks I had the privilege of speaking to almost all our new and returning full-time students: welcoming groups to the college; talking to them about the year to come; and encouraging them to make the most of the opportunities this year will bring.

For many of our students, studying at UHI Moray is a once-in-a-lifetime event, and it’s our job to make sure this year is the best for them that it can be.

I also talked about the importance of planning; about the way we have to be flexible when our plans don’t take us where we expect. Life happens, and plans have to change.

There was an unexpected frisson of excitement during one of my talks when I put up a picture of graduating students on the steps of the town hall seven years ago. One of our new recruits recognised themselves in the photo. They were living proof that plans do change. There is #NoWrongPath and we welcome students of all ages to start, or then return here later, as their learning needs develop.

At the end of the first two weeks, we were checking paperwork regarding our campus buildings and came across a brand name we didn’t recognise - Siporex slabs being used in one of our roofs. We thought we’d better check out what it was.

It was exactly what we feared - RAAC (Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete). A surveyor arrived late on Friday afternoon, and by the end of the evening had confirmed RAAC in our Speyside wing.

We needed to close that building immediately, maybe indefinitely.

Our estates and registry teams then did what UHI Moray staff have done so brilliantly recently.

They worked across the weekend to take the drama out of a crisis. They re-timetabled all our Semester 1 provision to create space to move the affected classes, and to find temporary accommodation on campus for all the displaced staff, including me and my senior team.

David Patterson - Principal of Moray College ..Picture: Daniel Forsyth. Image No.034932.
David Patterson - Principal of Moray College ..Picture: Daniel Forsyth. Image No.034932.

Our first full week of teaching then began, if not as planned, then certainly as needed.

The disruption continued on Thursday of that week with a national strike for college teaching and support staff, though we remained open in Moray with less than 20 per cent of staff striking.

The same day also saw publication of an Audit Scotland report that was a stark reminder of the real crisis now unravelling across Scotland’s colleges.

It stated that while colleges are vital to learners and to local communities, funding for the sector has reduced by 8.5 per cent in real terms, and Audit Scotland had seen planning scenarios of staff losses at levels where a college “could no longer function”.

It identified nine significant areas of risk for colleges, including the urgent need for a major investment in the college estate that pre-dates the RAAC crisis.

In Moray we keep on pulling rabbits out of the hat, but skilled sleight of hand is a very poor substitute for proper resourcing.

This will be a challenging year for all colleges, and our campus conversations will be challenging too.

David Patterson is the principal of UHI Moray, which has its main campus in Elgin and is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

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