Scotland has shown incredible resilience over the pandemic; together universities have worked with the Government to help steer and navigate through the ensuing crisis, the scale of which is still unfolding.  As we look forward, we will need to show the same level of resolve to pull through the recession that follows to support our most vulnerable people, and to focus on the goal of building a more equal and sustainable future.

  The Scottish Government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery have said the recovery should be ‘education-led’ and as a member of university communities for over thirty years, I understand fully the underpinning rationale, the transformative power of education.    The success and reputation of Scotland’s universities are perhaps not as widely recognised in Scotland as further afield: recognised for the quality of our education and the excellence and impact of our research. Our reach and impact are far-ranging. We serve a much wider group of people than the 253,475 students that are in full time higher education. In the year before the pandemic we were supporting 31,000 workers across 2,500 organisations with professional development; making education accessible for 57,770 part-time learners; working with employers to enable 1,300 apprentices study in work for degrees, and nurturing a 53% increase in graduate start-up businesses over the last three years. With support we can and will do more to support those who find themselves unemployed and needing to re-skill or upskill to adapt to a changed labour market.    Our universities and businesses have given Scotland a worldwide reputation for inventiveness: from the cloning of animals to Metaflex fabric innovations to discovering the Human papillomavirus vaccine. We will apply that spirit of discovery and innovation to our re-invention of routes to renewed inclusive growth and a fairer, healthier, greener Scotland.  We have an outstanding research base and can accelerate its translation into business innovation and economic growth. We can leverage universities’ wide reaching and longstanding international partnerships and connections further as a key asset for Scotland, to support trade and inward investment. We will help develop the people and ideas that will drive the green transformation of the post-pandemic crisis economy.

  The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted heavily on the health and wellbeing of our society.  It has exposed fault lines in how some of our institutions and services are organised and run.  It has also exposed a significant vulnerability in funding our universities. The higher education of Scottish students and the research that universities deliver has been underfunded for some time and has relied, to an increasing extent, on subsidies from international student fee income. Our sector has been highly effective at bridging this gap in our funding model by attracting international students. These students have enriched our student communities and have contributed to Scotland’s economy and culture, and their fees have underpinned our core functions. The potentially major impact of the pandemic on international student mobility is the root cause of the financial black hole that has been facing universities since COVID-19 hit in March.

  What is important now is to ensure we address this challenge on a sustainable basis and for the long term so that universities can play their full part in driving Scotland’s recovery over the years ahead.   We are not alone in facing an unprecedented financial challenge. However, what may not be fully appreciated is the role our universities must and will play in navigating a successful journey through these turbulent times. Through education we will empower people to flex/adapt/retrain and develop new skills, and by harnessing the capacity and capability of our research and innovation infrastructure and the world-leading talent and expertise of our people we will enable our society to address the most pressing health, environmental and social challenges that we face.

  On Friday, my four-year term as Convener of Universities Scotland came to an end. I’m proud of what our sector has achieved over that time, and I’m particularly proud of the response of university communities – staff and students – from the start of the pandemic to support the NHS, social care and the public health effort. I’m confident with effective government support, and working with our collaborators and partners in Scotland and around the world, we will continue to deliver new discoveries and inventions  and develop the skilled, resilient and adaptable people who will build a greener, healthier and inclusive Scotland.

Professor Andrea Nolan OBE is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh Napier University and outgoing Convener of Universities Scotland