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SFC Chief Executive, Karen Watt, pays tribute to the early response by Scotland’s colleges and universities to the pandemic.

Banner image for What the COVID-19 emergency is teaching us about our institutions


I’ve never felt prouder to work with our colleges and universities. Our lives are being turned inside-out and we are in the middle of a national and global COVID-19 emergency that is forcing us to re-evaluate what matters most. As we stand outside our front doors clapping for our NHS and carers, and for the multitude of people in our front-line services, I am also truly grateful for the work of college and university staff, students and researchers right across Scotland who are making a difference to our lives in these early weeks.

From the outset, colleges and universities did a smart job of getting out important messages and acting quickly to keep people safe and well, in ways that supported the NHS and protected us all – advice about staying at home, social distancing and frequent handwashing. They anticipated students’ concerns about closing campuses; supported people to work from home, get home or stay in residences far from home, complete graded work and assessments, move to remote and online learning, cope with the disappointment of postponed summer graduations; and worked with employers as apprenticeship placements become challenging. They are supporting students facing particular hardship, and they are helping new applicants understand their choices in a changing world. And, as we all come to this crisis in different ways, they have been quick to understand the importance of supporting good mental health and wellbeing among staff and students. Like the three Glasgow colleges, many are providing digital mental health support through Big White Wall or their own bespoke programmes.

Institutions are reaching out well beyond their own students, to support everyone. The Open University in Scotland is one of many institutions extending opportunities to all, by promoting over 1,000 free courses. Others have been sharing music, art and film, and special online work-out sessions to help people stay engaged and active. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is presenting live and curated performances from musicians and artists across the world. The SRUC is supporting home-schooled children.

Our universities are also at the leading edge of fighting the pandemic. More than ever we appreciate the investment in expertise, research, science and innovation. The University of Glasgow, with its Centre for Virus Research, is central to the global race to deal with this disease and is hosting a new COVID-19 testing centre, joining forces with many partners, including the University of Dundee, whose spinout company, Exscientia, is working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to screen drugs to treat the virus. The University of Edinburgh is tracking real-time data to understand disease risk and drug effects. Our universities are connected, world-leading, cutting edge, and will help us survive and thrive.

Important donations of ventilators, robots and other vital diagnostic and medical equipment are being made from institutions across Scotland. Glasgow Kelvin College has donated and delivered period products to vulnerable people, and staff at West Lothian, Fife and many other colleges have repurposed hundreds of laptops and delivered them to students who don’t have computers. The University of the Highlands & Islands is among many institutions donating unused food from canteens to foodbanks and services for disadvantaged households, and in Dundee and Angus the college has donated supplies of disposable gloves, masks and aprons to Cornerstone Scotland, a charity that provides care for disabled people. Argyll College lent two cars from its electric vehicle fleet to the emergency services.
Final year medical and nursing students with the necessary requirements are moving into the frontline to support the NHS, with many more with healthcare and biomedical skills helping behind the scenes. A group of students on a care course at Forth Valley College have volunteered to work in their community’s over-stretched care facilities. West College Scotland tweeted this week about one of its cookery students who is volunteering to help homeless people have food during the COVID-19 emergency. And at Heriot-Watt University an academic tweeted that he was volunteering to co-ordinate 3D printing resources in Scotland for COVID-19 needs.
It’s impossible to capture everything in this blog, but the energy, expertise, innovation and compassion evident in these examples are typical of the responses to the COVID-19 emergency we are seeing from all our colleges and universities right across Scotland. Thank you for finding time to read and reflect on the importance of this work, and for celebrating, with me, the value and impact of Scotland’s colleges and universities. They are responding to the challenges now, and will be vital in supporting the economy and society recover into the longer term.

If you would like to share great examples of work underway and responses to the pandemic, drop the SFC mailbox a line covid19@sfc.ac.uk as we’d like to capture and celebrate these contributions to the national emergency.