Colleges open doors. Let's keep it that way

for many years, Scottish education has wrestled with a problem: ambition in schools is too often tied to gaining a degree from a prestigious higher-education institution.

We forget that attending a well-known university is not the only way to succeed. Young people who gain vocational qualifications at college frequently end up just as successful as their university counterparts. Even if the ultimate goal is a degree, university is not the only route.

In fact, statistics published by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) this week show that a third of 16-year-olds who participate in higher education by the time they are 20 do so at a college. And that number is increasing all the time.

However, the figures also reveal a fall in what is called the "initial participation rate" - the probability that a 16-year-old will participate in higher education by the age of 30. This measure decreased from 56.1 per cent in 2011-12 to 54.7 per cent in 2012-13.

And this is only an indicator of where we were then, before further cuts began to bite and before colleges were restructured and merged into the regionalised sector that we have today.

Any drop in this figure is a concern - and a reminder of how important it is to offer progression routes that allow all types of learners to fulfil their potential. We know that the social mobility of college students is often much lower than that of those at university - colleges offer a route into higher education within a structure that suits some, particularly older, learners far better.

The SFC statistics also serve as a reminder of how crucial it is for colleges to maintain their offer to students in these straitened times.

We have countless examples of brilliant opportunities provided by the country's colleges, to students at all levels. Barclay McCrindle, the trailblazer and student association president at Glasgow Clyde College, whose story we tell in TESS this week (see pages 14-15), is only one of them.

In short, if we want to nudge the participation rate upwards, we must back the further education sector.

Of course, funding will be the key. Last week, TESS reported on plans to restructure the curriculum in Glasgow's colleges. Other institutions have announced similar plans in the wake of the regionalisation process. No one can deny that financial considerations have a major part to play in this process.

Finance secretary John Swinney recently announced that the college budget for 2015-16 will be pound;526 million - more than the current year but still significantly below historic levels.

We can only hope that colleges will be able to find ways to continue to offer routes into higher education. Particularly to those for whom the gates to our universities remain closed.

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