The Scottish college year has officially ended, bringing down the academic curtain on session 2019-20 for thousands of students. 

I add “officially”, because the last three months of lockdown certainly won’t have seemed like normal term time, thanks to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. 
And there is every likelihood, that 2020-21 will also be very different from traditional college norms.

Scotland’s 26 colleges remain a hugely important part of the communities within their own regions.

Collectively they employ around 14,700 staff, who operate out of an estate which is constantly being modernised for nearly 330,000 part- and full-time students who are quite simply learning some of the most important practical skills we need as a country to prosper.

The sector supports people of all ages and backgrounds, including many from overseas. 

They work every day with schools, universities, local communities, trade bodies and employers large and small to ensure we can continue to meet the workforce demands of industry and commerce. 

Those large numbers make this group one of the country’s most important communities, which will undoubtedly become even more pivotal in coming months as we emerge badly bruised economically from the pandemic in search of stability and growth.

Practically every key Scottish industry and business sector is served by our college offering, which has evolved cleverly over the years to match the skills demands of the regions and communities they each serve.

The most populous subject in terms of number of enrolments – rather appropriately at this time – is healthcare, medicine, health and safety, at almost 52,000 enrolments. 

There are around 47,000 engineering-related enrolments, 45,000 family care/personal development/personal care and appearance enrolments, 25,000 in business, management, and office supplies, 24,000 in information technology and information, and 19,000 in construction and property. 

In the 2020-21 budget, the Scottish Government allocated £640 million to fund the college sector with a further £35.7m to be spent on college capital needs.
But what we saw as the coronavirus outbreak started, illustrated perfectly just how well spent that money has been in creating this highly innovative national resource.

How Scotland’s colleges switched incredibly swiftly to digital teaching and assessment was a brilliant shop window of their adaptive skills, as we all moved into new ways of operating and thinking.

Their students and staff then rose just as impressively to the complex everyday challenges presented by Covid, by offering their time, skills and much-needed materials such as personal protective equipment to both the NHS, and to some of the most vulnerable members of their own communities, to first react and now recover, via social care and community organisations.

Their skills also came to the fore by addressing some complex engineering and other disciplines brought into play, for various sectors to react to the crisis.
How our college sector emerges now from Covid-19 will have a 
huge influence on how we do as a country.

That’s why throughout the crisis, I have been meeting regularly with college principals, unions and student representatives to ensure every practical effort is being made for them to resurface in good shape ready for next term, so they can remain at the forefront of our economic recovery.

We are publishing new guidance this week to help Scotland’s colleges (universities too) prepare their staff and students for a safe and phased return in the new term, using a blended model of remote and limited on-campus learning.

The flexibility and professionalism colleges have shown in the past 100 days has demonstrated they are more than well equipped to provide not only a safe working environment for everyone, but to support students in their studies with the highest quality of learning and teaching.

I have been a proud Further and Higher Education Minister as I watched our network react so brilliantly to the Covid crisis, and would like to thank them for that collective effort.

I am of no doubt, whatever, they will continue to rise to the ongoing challenges of not only recovering from the effects of this once-in-a-lifetime situation but continuing to provide the productive pipeline of the talent we need to prosper as an economy.

Richard Lochhead is Scotland’s Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science