THE number of students in Scotland’s colleges has plummeted by 152,000 since the SNP came to power in 2007, prompting warnings that the further education sector is in “crisis”.
Opposition politicians described the figures as “nothing short of a disgrace” when they were published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the body that distributes cash for colleges and universities.
The SFC statistics also revealed that the proportion of females taking advantage of a college education has fallen, suggesting that the system is failing women seeking to return to work.
A decade ago the proportion of female college students comfortably exceeded males, accounting for 58 per cent of enrolments in Scotland.
However, in the most recent year 2014-15, the percentage of women had fallen to 51 per cent.
There were 226,919 students at Scotland’s colleges in 2014-15, compared to 379,233 in 2007-8, according to the overall findings of the SFC.
Scotland has also seen a year-on-year fall in student headcount during the SNP’s nine years in power, with the number falling by more than 11,000 in 2014-15 alone.
The SFC said it had expected to see a decrease in headcount from 2008-9 after colleges were asked to prioritise more “substantive courses” and reduce the number of students enrolled on leisure programmes and very short courses.
However, the EIS teaching union blamed the sharp fall in the number of students at college since 2007 on “deep cuts” and said the government had neglected the further education (FE) sector in favour of universities and higher education (HE).
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “The Scottish Government’s policy decision to prioritise HE provision and full-time FE courses for younger learners has had a knock-on impact on the types of part-time courses that often appeal to adult returners, people with caring responsibilities, learners with disabilities and many others for whom full-time courses are simply not a practical option.”
Iain Gray, Scottish Labour spokesman for opportunities, said the SNP government had starved colleges of funding and claimed that women, part-time students and disabled people were among those hit hardest by cuts,
He said: “No matter how they try to dress this up these figures show that there are now 152,000 fewer students in colleges than there were when the SNP came to power.
“In particular, second chance learners, women returners to work, workers seeking new skills, people with learning disabilities have all been squeezed out.
“The SNP’s record on further education is nothing short of a disgrace.”
Meanwhile, the SFC figures showed that colleges delivered 121,364 full-time equivalent places last year, up 1.2 per cent from 2013-14. These included 119,078 funded places, exceeding the Scottish Government’s target of 116,000.
Education secretary Angela Constance said the overall findings showed that 2015 was a “landmark year for Scotland’s young people”.
She said: “These figures suggest that our reforms are working and that more students successfully completed full-time courses leading to recognised qualifications.”
However, Scottish Conservative young people spokesperson Liz Smith accused the SNP government of using political “spin”.
She said: “A crisis is looming in further education and the cabinet secretary and first minister must address this dramatic fall in student numbers before it is too late.”