Can colleges afford to care for the community?

As the college sector experiences one of the biggest reorganisations in its history, now might be a good time to ask a very philosophical question: what is it actually for?

There's the obvious, of course. The Scottish government promises everyone aged 16-19 a place in education, training or employment. Colleges are called upon to deliver their portion of that promise, focusing on providing full-time vocational courses that will improve young people's chances of getting a job.

And they do it well. Year on year, despite huge budget cuts and dramatic reorganisation, colleges deliver thousands of higher national diplomas and higher national certificates - even degrees.

But is that really all colleges are for? Is their sole purpose really to bridge the gap between school and employment?

One area that has been profoundly important over the years has been special educational needs. This week, TESS reports on figures from the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disability (page 8), which show that the number of adults with learning disabilities enrolled in Scottish further education decreased by 10.7 per cent between 2011 and 2012. Previously, in December 2011, we exclusively revealed that more than a third of college places for people with learning disabilities had been slashed.

It would be easy to blame colleges for cutting provision for these learners, many of whom may not be able to follow a steady progression route or immediately add to the colleges' positive destination statistics. They also often do not fall into the government's focus age group of 16-19. But with significantly tighter budgets, something has to give. Colleges simply cannot do it all without the necessary funding.

The FE sector has always provided crucial opportunities for learners of all ages, giving second chances and routes back into education to those who need them most. Those for whom the traditional school-university-job triad is not an option can attend college to study anything from basic life skills to entry-level qualifications and Highers.

Often, it is as much about gaining confidence as it is about a certificate at the end of a course. For those with learning disabilities, it is also about mixing with peers and being part of their community.

The figures we report on today are for 2012. When the government decreased the planned cut to college funding in April, it said that some of the extra money would support part-time provision for learner groups most at risk of losing out. But as demands on colleges continue to grow, it will be an uphill battle to ensure that students with learning disabilities are able to access appropriate courses.

As Peter Scott, chief executive of Scottish disability charity Enable, told TESS this week, they, "like anyone else, want to learn, work, earn a living and fully participate in society". And if colleges are not able provide them with the opportunity to do that, who will?

julia.belgutay@tess.co.uk.

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