Leaders: SNP must wake up to real value of colleges

FALL in student numbers suggests Scottish Government has lost interest in a crucial part of tertiary education

FALL in student numbers suggests Scottish Government has lost interest in a crucial part of tertiary education

No matter what form of gloss is painted over yesterday’s statistics issued by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), there is no escaping the fact that the fall in the number of students at Scotland’s colleges is concerning.

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A drop of more than 152,000 since the SNP first came to power in 2007 is a dramatic one, which should not be dismissed lightly. It is a figure that reinforces the impression that colleges are treated as Cinderella establishments when it comes to SNP administrations.

Hence the outcry from opposition parties when the figures came to light. Labour spoke of a “looming crisis” in the further education sector, while the Conservatives described the figures as “nothing short of a disgrace”.

Unions and politicians lost little time in blaming these figures on the Scottish Government’s decision to prioritise university funding at the expense of colleges.

Education and learning whether through universities, colleges or on-the-job training are key to people getting on in life. And the role played by colleges should not be under­estimated.

Colleges can act as the route to success for those denied a decent school education.

They can provide a step on to the career ladder for mothers keen to return to work.

In that regard it was of particular concern to learn that the proportion of female college students has fallen from 58 per cent to 51 per cent over the last decade.

For those seeking to retrain after a break from education, colleges can be a lifeline. Others who can benefit from college are students with caring responsibilities, learners with disabilities and others for whom full-time courses are not an option. Moreover, they also offer practical and vocational courses, which are a far cry from some of the more esoteric degrees offered by universities.

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Over the years, colleges have been a key stepping stone for countless students, who have pursued rewarding and lucrative blue collar careers, which have a knock-on effect of creating wealth and jobs.

Those in doubt about the role colleges can play should cast their minds back to a report written by Sir Ian Wood, one of Scotland’s most successful industrialists.

It was in 2014 when the oil entrepreneur headed a Scottish Government commissioned review, which examined how Scottish youngsters were being prepared for working life.

The “key message” sent by Sir Ian was that school leavers would benefit from more work experience. He envisaged colleges playing a crucial part in giving young people better and greater experience of business.

Faced with yesterday’s figures, the Scottish Government tried to sugar the pill by pointing out that the number of students studying full-time higher education courses at college now stood at its highest ever level.

That gloss, however, could not distract from the overall trend of falling student numbers.

It is about time that the Scottish Government began investing more in the sector and woke up to the benefits of a college education.

Undignified spat where no-one wins

There can be few things less edifying than two grown up men squabbling in public, particularly when their spat involves trading insults of the most juvenile variety.

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In the case of Alex Salmond and Donald Trump, it is all the more unsatisfactory when one considers that both men believe themselves to be statesman material.

Salmond is a former First Minister of Scotland, while Mr Trump’s limitless ambition extends to becoming the next Republican resident of the White House.

Of course, fallouts do happen and in the rarefied world of big business and politics they can be particularly acrimonious.

Nevertheless, when it comes to unseemly behaviour of this sort neither of the protagonists come out of it with any credit. More importantly, it is harmful to Scotland because the country is caught in the middle of it. For many it is an unpalatable thought that Trump has an interest in Scotland after his recent offensive remarks about Muslims. But the truth is that he is a major investor in the country, no matter how uncomfortable that may feel.

That feeling of discomfort will only have increased with Trump’s broadside against Salmond yesterday after the former First Minister ridiculed him on his new radio show.

It took just one appearance in the LBC hotseat for Salmond to trigger an eruption of the Trump temper.

Salmond should be wary – his attempt to get a cheap laugh could prove expensive for Scotland. Both should now draw a line under their very public spat. And Salmond should resist the temptation to wind up his nemesis on his phone-in over the next few weeks.