Senior figures from Scotland’s college and university sector praised its strength in depth as they chose finalists for The Herald Higher Education Awards 2021.

They took part in a judging session that saw them assess achievements across categories such as supporting student wellbeing, research, business engagement, promoting equality and technological innovation.

Panel members readily admitted that the “spread” of success enjoyed by individuals and teams around the country made their task exceptionally difficult.

Nevertheless, they were able to whittle the entries down to a shortlist, with winners due to be announced during a virtual prizegiving ceremony on June 17.

This year’s judges are: Jon Baldwin, Managing Director of Higher Education at the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc); Mhairi Harrington OBE, a former principal of West Lothian College who is on the board at the Scottish Funding Council (SFC); Dr Ilona Roth, an honorary associate at the Open University’s School of Life, Health and Chemical Sciences; James Dunphy, SFC Director of Access, Learning and Outcomes; and Roy Gardner, Vice-Principal for Corporate Development & Innovation at City of Glasgow College (CGC).

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The panel is chaired by Donald Martin, Editor of The Herald and Herald on Sunday, and Editor-in-Chief at Newsquest Scotland.

Judges were particularly impressed by work that had been undertaken to bolster and nurture learning communities during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Praising the approach at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, which appears in the Supporting Student Wellbeing and Outstanding Contribution from a University Student categories, Ms Harrington said: “There was student testimony about them being made to feel really welcome and not isolated, and … what I liked about it was … it felt like a really warm and genuine approach to students who are coming here from other countries and that whole welcome thing I just thought was a very thoughtful approach, and the fact that it involved staff right through to the Principal, who dressed up as Santa Claus.”

In the Research Project of the Year category, Mr Baldwin’s eye was caught by a CGC study about oxygen depletion in enclosed spaces.

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“For City of Glasgow College to produce something of such strength, and have it referenced in peer review journals, seemed to me to be an outstanding kind of achievement to be acknowledged,” he told fellow judges.

Also up for prizes in this year’s ceremony are students who have made significant contributions to campus and community life. Among them is John Frace at the University of the Highlands and Islands (Argyll College), whose Scotland/UK coronavirus tracker website was a hit with the judging panel.

“I really felt John’s submission was excellent,” said Mr Dunphy.

“He’d created a website, he had a Twitter following [including] the First Minister [and National Clinical Director] Jason Leitch, among other people.

“And his whole concept was about trying to make the data that was available in the public domain more useful at a local level for communities.”

All in all, judges said they were struck by the quality and innovation in evidence around Scotland, particularly in the midst of the pandemic.

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“I think it was really nice to see the spread across all the different institutions – it’s great,” said Ms Harrington as the session drew to a close.

Dr Roth said it had been a pleasure to take part, adding: “Reading about some of the reactions, especially to Covid, I’ve just found it really moving, actually, and inspirational. So I feel very privileged to have been able to read up on all of those.”

Mr Martin said he was deeply grateful to all judges for taking the time to sift through a very strong list of contenders. “We’ve got a great spread and some great excellence being recognised, and that’s what it’s all about,” he added.

Winners will be announced at a virtual award ceremony on Thursday, June 17. To purchase tickets visit http:// heawards/