Education holds the key to reversing the alarming decline in Argyll and Bute’s population, according to Labour MSP David Stewart.
Mr Stewart, a list MSP for the Highlands and Islands, said the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) in particular could play an important role in bringing more people to live and work in the area.
Speaking in this week’s Scottish Parliament debate on the subject, Mr Stewart said: “I believe that education is a powerful tool in the armoury. The University of the Highlands and Islands has received support from successive Scottish Governments and from all parties in the chamber - I put on record the support that Mike Russell gave UHI when he was education secretary.
“There are now around 9,300 students taking higher education qualifications across the region, including in Argyll and Bute.
As the university matures, develops and broadens its range of academic courses, I believe that it will decelerate out-migration and encourage more people - and indeed students of all ages - to study, train and work in Argyll and Bute.
“The key is to align academic experience, learning and training provision with the current and future needs of employers. An example is the provision of modern apprenticeships in the energy, engineering and food and drink sectors.
We have to be realistic about the fact that regions in Scotland are, in effect, in competition with each other as far as industry and inward migration are concerned. If the aim is to target those of working age, we need to address the question of how competitive Highlands and Islands as a region, and Argyll and Bute specifically, are in ensuring, as some members have already touched on, adequate affordable housing, integration of transport, broadband speed, and the quality of the mobile phone infrastructure.
“Finally, we all know but it is worth stating - that depopulation and economic activity are inversely related. In 2012, for example - figures for which were the latest that I could find -Argyll and Bute’s employment rate was below the Highlands and Islands average and its unemployment and economic inactivity rates were above the Highlands and Islands averages. So that is the task.
“To take the population change figures from 2001 to 2011, Argyll and Bute lost 3.4 per cent of its population, which is the largest area population decline in the region. It also had the lowest employment rate for young people and the largest economic inactivity rate among young people - it was higher than the Scottish average.
“Those are the facts from the past, but we have to be positive for the future. Argyll and Bute has beautiful landscape and breathtaking scenery, of course, but they do not by themselves put food on the table or clothes on the backs of children. The key goals in addressing the population decline are to stimulate and grow the economy and to target the attraction and retention of young people.”