Last year saw the lowest number of graduates in Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas from colleges in the last six years, according to Scottish Executive figures published earlier this month.
In 1999, there were 26,080 people studying higher education courses in further education colleges, compared with 42,310 at HE institutions. Those numbers fell last year to 19,235 students studying HNCs or above in FE, while there were 50,650 studying in HE institutions.
A large drop of 4,010 HE students in FE occurred in 2001 as Bell College and the colleges in the University of the Highlands and Islands Millennium Institute became higher education institutions. But the number of graduates from FE had fallen from the previous year and have been in decline ever since, while HE numbers have risen annually since 1999.
Julie Gilstrap, policy adviser at the Association of Scotland's Colleges, cited several factors. "Colleges are independent and make their own decisions about types and levels of provision," she said.
"Given limited resources and pressures for financial security, some colleges have decided to cut HE provision that wasn't viable in favour of growth in full-time FE, particularly for disadvantaged groups. Some HEIs have changed their entry requirements or increased their provision of HNCs and HNDs, so there has been some shift between colleges and HEIs."
A spokesman for Universities Scotland believes there is a link. "The message about the positive impact of having a degree on people's career prospects is getting through," he said, suggesting that all the new jobs needed in the Scottish economy during the next 20 years will be at graduate level or above.
"There is clear evidence that people who don't study their degree as a four-year continuous course are less successful than those who do," he said. "You are much more likely to drop out if you are not doing the full four years of a higher education course."
The universities believe HN students lose out because they do not reap the benefits from attending first year, such as how to use the library.
The spokesman also acknowledged that, ironically, higher education could be benefiting from the way further education has been promoted as a route back into education: "More people were encouraged to think about going into HE through FE, so people thought 'Why don't I go straight into HE?'."
But he said: "The fact that people are recognising the benefit of having a university education is no reflection on our colleges. It is because of the flexibility of post-school education in Scotland that people have this kind of choice."