The heads of some of the largest colleges are to be questioned by MSPs on the impact of mergers in the further education sector.
Members of Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee will also challenge a leading figure from college funding body the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) on the issue.
It comes after a report by public spending watchdog Audit Scotland found that college incomes have fallen since 2010-11, with a £56 million reduction in grant funding from the SFC.
The income drop has been met by cost savings, mainly by cutting college staff, but more cuts could be required in the future, the Audit Scotland report warned.
Hugh Henry, convener of the Public Audit Committee, said colleges face an “unprecedented financial squeeze”, with the merger process also “representing a major challenge for Scotland’s colleges”.
Mr Henry and MSPs on the committee will question Audrey Cumberford, principal and chief executive of West College Scotland, Margaret Munckton, acting principal and chief executive of Perth College, Susan Walsh, principal and chief executive of Glasgow Clyde College, and Alan Williamson, director of finance at Edinburgh College.
After hearing from college chiefs they will quiz Laurence Howells, interim chief executive of the SFC.
Speaking before this morning’s meeting, Mr Henry said: “Scotland’s colleges face an unprecedented financial squeeze. As Audit Scotland notes, the sector faces an overall 11% reduction in revenue grant funding, with the merger process representing a major challenge for Scotland’s colleges.
“The committee will take evidence from college principals and the main funding body to examine the effectiveness and progress of college mergers. The committee will also explore what the reduction in funding means for staff numbers, retention of skills and experience and the quality of learning provided.”
In its report in August, Audit Scotland said the college sector faces an overall 11% real-terms reduction in revenue grant funding from the Scottish Government between 2011-12 and 2014-15.
“Some college regions are likely to see larger reductions in their grant funding than others, meaning they face greater challenges to reduce their costs,” it warned.
“Reducing staff numbers is likely to continue to be colleges’ main way of delivering savings but they will need to retain the skills and experience they require to maintain the quality of learning they provide.”
When it was published a Scottish Government spokesman said the report highlights “the strength of the college sector, not least in financial terms, with reserves rising to a record £214 million”.
The spokesman said Audit Scotland recognises “that colleges have responded to the Government’s request to shift focus to courses that improve people’s chances of getting and staying in work” and that the report “confirms colleges are continuing to deliver our commitment to maintain student numbers with full-time equivalent student numbers remaining steady”.
He also stressed the Government’s commitment to colleges, saying: “They are at the heart of our aims for economic growth and this is reflected in the addition of £61 million to the sector earlier this year, providing for an unprecedented funding floor of £522 million this and next year.”