The pandemic has caused a spike in demand for short, flexible and online courses among professionals, writes Professor Gerry McCormac.

The future depends on what we do in the present and given current challenges, the decisions we make now as a society will have far-reaching consequences for many years to come. Scotland’s universities are an essential, stabilising and creative force that offer a wide range of opportunities for individuals and society through education and research. Our work since the pandemic hit has been vital in terms of the frontline response of students and staff, and will be of even greater relevance to Scotland’s recovery and the wellbeing of our citizens.

Since late March, as Scotland went into lockdown, universities have experienced a steep rise in demand from people wanting new and constructive educational opportunities that offer them the potential for positive change. As companies and organisations have found themselves faced with unprecedented challenges, they have turned to universities to help bolster their resilience.

Universities in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Stirling and Dundee pivoted rapidly to adapt their support to help with the crisis. All 19 higher education institutions have played their part both regionally and nationally, and will continue to do so in the months and years ahead.

Professional short courses and “micro-credentials”, launched by universities in the early months of the pandemic, have been over-subscribed by people already in work, who want to develop their skill set, and by businesses wanting their teams to have the means to lead and respond to change in the current climate. This was the case for suites of short courses launched separately at both Robert Gordon University and the University of Glasgow earlier this year. Glasgow recruited from every post code area of Scotland and the participants are staff working in over 235 different companies. More generally, demand has come from furloughed workers, those working at home, and the unemployed, ambitious to get their careers back on track in the toughest of times. Universities have been there, throughout lockdown, for the SME sector.

Last year, 31,000 people at diverse career stages chose a university course to support their career progression. However, the pandemic has increased and accelerated this need. Universities are responding. From next month, the Open University in Scotland is running a new set of online and flexible upskilling modules in business, maths, and engineering to support workers to reskill. No previous qualifications are necessary.

St Andrews will launch a new distance learning study programme in data science in 2021 to address the critical need. The course works as standalone modules or can be combined to lead to a postgraduate certificate or diploma.

Universities will be essential to supporting people at all stages of their lives and careers. We’ll be a crucial part of Scotland’s Youth Guarantee, building intergenerational equity. Our core undergraduate provision has seen increased demand from learners who recognise the value of a degree to their future success. As part of that, we’ve been proud to welcome the increased numbers of learners with Highers that qualify them for university. We’re building broader pathways from college to university, ensuring graduate employability, and more people are also seeing postgraduate degrees as a way to build specialised skills to give them an advantage in a competitive jobs market.

All this will be important – as will the sector’s ability to continue to diversify, to step up, and help shape a new and agile provision. The patterns we have seen over 2020 will continue. The need for flexible, shorter and online micro-credentials that fit around people’s work and personal commitments – and are relevant to their career aspirations and the needs of the changing economy – will continue to grow as the recession bites more deeply. The workforce will need a range of mechanisms that offers opportunities, purpose, and new directions. The future requires a much bigger role for universities in supporting a larger and more diverse share of Scotland’s population through this crisis – and we’re totally committed to doing that.