The number of students at Scottish colleges has fallen dramatically, according to a new independent report.
A review of the country’s colleges sector by Audit Scotland has revealed the overall number of students attending has dropped by 41 per cent in just eight years.
There was an even greater decrease in those studying part time, with numbers falling by nearly half.
The biggest reductions have been seen amongst women and mature students.
Scotland’s colleges have faced significant changes in recent years, undergoing a programme of reform that has seen the creation of 13 college regions and the number of institutions being cut from 37 to 20 between 2011 and 2015.
Colleges have also been reclassified as public bodies.
The report shows there has been a 14 per cent rise in the number of under-25s on full-time courses, but attainment and student retention fell after a period of increase.
Overall, the sector’s financial health was found to be fairly stable, though lacking in long-term planning for future costs.
“Scotland’s colleges are operating in a very different environment, which has presented several challenges,” said Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland. “While the sector has exceeded its learning targets and maintained relatively sound finances, managing the ongoing impact of reform and financial pressures will be complex and demanding.”
The report has sparked criticism of the SNP’s government’s performance on education.
“This report shows the complete and utter mess the SNP have made of college reorganisation in Scotland,” said Iain Gray, education spokesman for Scottish Labour.
“The SNP record on colleges is simply shameful – budgets slashed, fewer students, falling attainment, inadequate student support and botched mergers.”
Lib Dem MSP Tavish Scott said: “The hard truth is that colleges and students have been let down by the SNP.”
Vonnie Sandlan, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, said the figures “show a worrying trend”.
Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers acknowledged that there are areas where “further work is required” and added: “In terms of planning, we are working with the trade unions and we are engaging with the Scottish Funding Council on the development of a ten-year infrastructure plan for the sector. Colleges Scotland is committed to work with the Scottish Government to ensure that colleges, as public bodies, are as financially stable and sustainable as possible.”