Angus MacPhail: A path to home

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At this time of year, the excitement of new beginnings is in the minds of the many students embarking on their first forays away from home.

For most of the Scottish colleges and universities, Freshers’ Week came to a conclusion last weekend and, this week, courses are starting in earnest.

The influx to the cities of hordes of young students from the Highlands and Islands is a double-edged sword both for the individuals and for the communities they come from.

For the individual, it means the thrill of a new chapter coupled with the sadness of leaving home. For the communities, it means their sons and daughters seeing the world and gaining a further education coupled with the prospect that most will never return to fill the population gap they leave behind.

Further education in the form of a university or college course is one of the great opportunities of the modern world and one of the best means for progression of the individual and the population as a whole. However, this path is not for everyone and progress in life for many individuals is, in fact, stifled by the all-encompassing pressure that the school environment exerts on anyone who is able, at the earliest opportunity, to get themselves a degree.

For the Highlands and Islands, the blanket approach of the education system to pressure all to follow a route that mainly involves moving to the city is one of the most significant causes of depopulation.

From the day children enter school, they are being both directly and indirectly steered towards a path that leads to leaving home. This is the right road for many but for many others it is not.

Unfortunately, the school system gives almost no credence to career paths that allow young people to continue living where they come from, as many want to do. This is one area that, with a simple change of approach, could have a significantly positive effect on the sustainability of peripheral economies.

With the wonders of an improving internet system connecting rural areas to the world, I see more and more opportunities arising for jobs that can be done from the geographic extremities of the country.

These new opportunities, as well as those existing and historic, should be an integral part of the careers advice given in schools. Yes, it may involve a period of education in the city, but if that journey is started with returning being the goal, it could have a long-term strengthening effect on the fragile populations.

A successful career can come in many shapes and forms and certainly does not need to involve further formal education or leaving home. The many people who wish to live in the place they are from should be given guidance relevant to that aim.

There are thousands of people who wish to return to the Highlands and Islands to live and work but have no idea how to achieve that. With better support in early education, many of them might not have left in the first place and many others might be better qualified to be able to return.

So, to those first year students setting off on their own new voyages I say, make the most of your widening world and enjoy the experiences of the city, but in the words of Skerryvore, remember you have ‘A bridge forever, a path to home.’