A RANSOMWARE attack early last year on the computer systems at Dundee & Angus College was Simon Hewitt’s introduction to his new job as principal.

It was a serious attack that crippled the establishment for many months and it was no sooner manageable than the college, like the rest of the country, was struck by Covid-19, with both momentous events conspiring to create a “baptism of fire” for the new head.

“We had that [computer hack] in the January and recovered and then in March, the pandemic hit. So, we’ve basically been in crisis management mode since the January before then, so it really has been a baptism of fire,” says Hewitt who, at the age of 39 is the youngest college principal in Scotland.

He moved into the top post from being vice-principal and head of IT services after studying and teaching the subject at Dundee College, as D&A was then.

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“I ended up coming back to college to do some evening classes and desktop support, and then ended up teaching those classes the following year, and that’s basically where my relationship with the college started.

“Fourteen years on and I’m the principal of it, which is crazy to deal with, but I was computing lecturer, then head of computing, vice-principal … so yes, it’s an interesting one.”

Hewitt highlights how “amazing” it has been to watch how ­various business sectors have adapted to come through the pandemic into different, often hybrid, ways of working.

“The college sector’s always been under a bit of criticism about not ­being quick enough to react, being a bit slow and I have to say it has been phenomenal over this last year how it has managed to support ­students, ­particularly students in these ­traditional areas like joinery and ­apprenticeships and hairdressing.

“To try and move that type of ­curriculum and delivery online has been nothing short of remarkable, and even just supporting learners in really different ways through ­technology. They’ve ended up more connected to the students and in more focus groups, conversations, chats and coffees with students this year than what I’ve ever had when we were on campus.

“So, the way I look at it now is we’ve unlocked the art of the possible. We can’t go back to what we were before, but at the same time we also have to recognise that colleges are much more than learning and teaching. Often we talk a lot about economic recovery, but the social recovery part is going to be absolutely huge.”

Hewitt says D&A is key to the economic recovery of Dundee and Tayside and he is keen that smaller employers in a city once renowned for apprenticeships with the likes of Timex, Michelin, NCR and the ­Caledon shipyard, should be filling the gap they left behind. He is chair of the local employability partnership Discover Work Dundee and D&A is a leading partner in the Michelin ­Scotland Innovation Parc (MSIP), as well as the esports arena that Northern Lights Arena Europe (NLAE) wants to build on the waterfront.

The college has come from having an occasional seat at the economic development table to a permanent one, sometimes at the top of it, to play what he says is a vital role helping the local economy through apprenticeships, upskilling and reskilling workforces.

“We have over the last few months implemented a new business partnerships team and invested in some new staff and are going to work ­really closely with businesses, because every business is stepping back and looking at what they need right now, either in buildings, in function or staffing.

“That’s a big thing for us as we want to be a big part of that workforce planning piece, because whilst a lot of people make good use of apprenticeships, there are a lot of businesses – particularly small to medium businesses – that don’t really understand that world, that don’t understand the benefits of the apprenticeship family or working with the colleges through work placements or other schemes.

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“It’s a minefield to understand some of these funding opportunities and understand all different funding paths and how they can access them.

“Most employers are thinking, ‘I just want to keep the lights on, I’ll get to that when I can get to it’.”

Hewitt’s team has been ­focusing on demystifying the ­availability of ­various resources available to ­businesses and he says it has gone down well with them.

He adds: “Employers are seriously looking at how they operate, not just with the pandemic but with Brexit and everything else, there’s real skills shortages, and … we need to have a key role in supporting that. That’s a big priority for me.”