THE number of students in Scotland’s colleges has fallen by more than 100,000 in recent years after a drive to slash part-time courses.
More than 600 teaching staff have also been axed following widespread cost-cutting mergers across the system which saw the number of individual colleges fall from 37 to 20 in recent years. It will save an estimated £50 million a year.
An Audit Scotland report found the way that mergers have been managed was generally financially sound, as institutions shed hundreds of staff and dealt with falling budgets.
A spokesman for Colleges Scotland said the report recognises the “significant change” that the college sector has had to negotiate in the past few years.
He added: “It underlines that colleges in Scotland have succeeded in delivering what has been asked of them on time, whilst maintaining sound finances, and protecting the learner.”
It also sets out the extent of declines in student numbers and teaching staff in recent years, which now stands at 238,000 – down by 36 per cent from 371,000 six years ago.
This has been driven by a major fall in the number of part-time students, down by about 48 per cent.
Ministers have instructed colleges to reduce the number of courses that did not lead to a recognised qualification or that lasted less than ten hours.
The past two years have seen decreases in both part-time and full-time students, resulting in an overall fall of about 3,000 full-time equivalents between 2008-9 and 2013-14.
But the changes to date have had “little negative impact” on students who remain.
Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The last few years have placed significant demands on colleges in Scotland as they managed a complex programme of reform. Our report is intended to support them in learning from how these reforms were delivered and addressing areas that need to improve.
“In the main, colleges coped well with substantial changes to the way they work, maintaining sound finances and completing mergers on time, without negatively affecting students during the process.
“Many of the effects of mergers are still taking place, however, and there are continuing challenges. It’s important that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council work with colleges to measure and publicly report on whether the reforms have delivered all the intended benefits.”
Colleges’ planning for mergers was generally good and carried out on time, the report added. More than 1,000 staff have gone from colleges across Scotland, including about 630 lecturers and tutors.
Reductions in staff costs were achieved mainly through voluntary severances, and auditors found weaknesses in how a small number of colleges had managed severance payments for senior staff.
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