The further education sector has yet to notice any impact from tuition charges on the next session, colleges have told The TESS. But one reason could be the mistaken assumption that only university students will be required to pay the fees of up to pound;1000.
A survey of the leading colleges with the most higher education provision found none reporting any significant downturn in course enquiries, but a number pointed out that these were early days.
A third of HE students take their courses in FE colleges, and the Government plans to expand both universities and colleges with an extra 500,000 student places by 2002. The increasingly important links between the two sectors will be on the agenda of the annual FE conference run by The TESS and Perth College which takes place today (Friday) in Perth.
Perhaps the most telling straws in the wind are in Tayside, where Dundee and Abertay universities had the biggest drop in applications by February - 14 per cent, compared with an average Scottish decrease of 6 per cent. The Government's critics blame the introduction of tuition charges.
In contrast, applications to FE colleges in the area do not appear to be hit at all. But there is no clear evidence as yet of a switch from HE to FE.
Fife College, which has close links with Abertay, says there has been no drop in enquiries across the board. But the course admissions office at the college, where 1500 out of its 2500 full-time students are on HE courses, speculated that prospective FE students may not yet realise that some will have to pay for tuition.
Dundee College also reports that it is handling as many inquiries as last year. But Iain Ovens, the principal, said it was "too early to know how many of these inquiries will become actual enrolments." A clearer picture would emerge once NationalCertificate students had completed their programmes and pupils received their exam results.
Tom Wilson, principal of the Glasgow College of Building and Printing, where half the full-time students are on HE courses, says there has been "a slight downturn" in enquiries.
But, he adds: "It is difficult to be sure whether this is due to tuition fees or not. Students interviewed for a place are not signalling to admissions officers that tuition fees are a factor. But these are the converted, who clearly believe that an HE qualification is worth up to pound;1000 a year. What we are not seeing yet are the unconverted, who may be less convinced."
Tuition fees will be means tested. So that only 5 per cent of new college HE students will pay the full pound;1000 tuition fee next sessiion, compared with 22 per cent of university students.
Some 70 per cent of new HE students in colleges will be fully exempt, considerably more than the estimated 40 per cent of university entrants.
Jim Haluch, marketing manager at Edinburgh's Telford College, suggests the colleges are not suffering in the same way as the universities.
Applications for HE courses at Telford last month were 1.9 per cent less last month thanin the same period last year. But inquiries in the three months to the end of March were 27 per cent up on the beginning of 1997.
Mr Haluch believes students may be attracted to FE colleges because they provide a cheaper and quicker route to advanced qualifications and jobs. They can finish a higher national diploma, for example, in two years.
James Watt College in Greenock has 60 per cent of full-time students on advanced courses. A spokesman agreed that the college was finding little difference between this year and last, but said most of its recruitment normally takes place between now and the summer.
Reid Kerr College in Paisley expects a similar pattern. Aberdeen College says it is too early to say. But Tom Kelly, chief officer for the Association of Scottish Colleges, says the nature of FE is such that colleges will not know the final picture almost until course starting dates in the autumn. "Understanding of the new arrangements is still fairly rudimentary," he added.
FE accounts for a quarter of HE provision in Scotland, double the contribution from colleges elsewhere in the UK. The Government believes the colleges should have a particular role to play in expanding HE for part-time students, where FE already supplies over 40 per cent of the provision.
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