The number of enrolments to Scottish colleges has dropped by nearly 10 per cent in a year, TESS can reveal.
Among Scotland's 27 colleges, 20 responded to a survey by TESS, which reveals that the drop of more than 19,000 enrolments (from 218,363 in 2013-14 to 198,889 in 2014-15) is largely due to a reduction in students signing up for part-time courses. However, the number of full-time enrolments has also fallen.
College leaders stressed that the academic year did not conclude until next month and that the number of enrolments could still rise slightly as a result of schemes such as summer schools. But the survey is the latest indicator of Scottish colleges struggling to meet government expectations amid tight financial constraints and the fallout of significant structural reform and regionalisation.
While the government has asked colleges to focus on full-time courses leading to recognised qualifications, student associations and unions stressed that this shift should not be at the expense of older learners and those returning to education.
`Alarm bells ringing'
Vonnie Sandlan (pictured, inset), NUS Scotland president-elect, said any drop in college places should "set the alarm bells ringing". She added: "While we recognise the focus on full-time courses to boost opportunities and improve youth employment, it's clear that such a strategy runs the risk of excluding those who need a place most.
"The large drop in part-time enrolments could mean students with caring responsibilities, or those who need to work while studying, could be most at risk of losing out."
Three colleges also told TESS that they were expecting to fall short on their delivery targets for learning hours. These are set for each of the 13 college regions by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) in exchange for core funding. Earlier this month, TESS revealed that the SFC had clawed back pound;1.8 million from three colleges that had missed their targets for 2013-14 ("Short on learning hours? We'll have our funding back.", News, 5 June)
Edinburgh College hit the headlines last month when it was revealed that enrolments had dropped by almost 40 per cent between 2010-11 and 2013-14. Figures supplied to TESS show that the number of student enrolments decreased by 4,350 between 2012-13 and 2013-14 alone. However, the figures have since risen by more than 10 per cent, and a spokesman said the college's strategic plan aimed to "reverse the downward trend in enrolments and to plan for growth".
"We have worked with stakeholders such as schools and community partners to increase the number of courses we offered in 2014-15," he added. "Looking to next year, we have continued to improve our course offering and our marketing of this, which has already resulted in an increase in applications for 2015-16 compared with this time last year."
The figures collated by TESS reveal that the number of non-teaching staff has fallen at nearly all the colleges that responded - by almost 250 members of staff overall. The headcount of teaching staff has also decreased, albeit only slightly.
John Gallagher, Scottish organiser for Unison, which represents college support staff, said they played "a vital role in the education of young people and adult returners".
"Librarians, technicians, enrolment staff, welfare and academic advisers, caterers and cleaners - they all support students to achieve better results and prevent dropouts," he said. "These cuts could have a detrimental effect on our student success rates. If there is no consistency of service supplied across Scotland's colleges, then students will continue to experience an uneven approach to services."
Cuts and mergers
According to a Unison survey this week, two-thirds of support staff at Scottish colleges feel services have declined over the past two years. Nearly half blame this on the loss of experienced staff, an overall reduction in staff numbers and the impact of mergers. More than three-quarters are "not confident" or "extremely doubtful" that services will improve in the next year.
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said her organisation would "continue to make the case to ensure that colleges provide opportunities for adult learners, as they offer a vital lifeline back into education and work".
"It is important to recognise that while there has been a reduction in staffing levels within the sector, this can mainly be attributed to the duplication of roles identified during merger processes," Ms Struthers said. "The sector's leaders are proud of their staff and their continued commitment to learners. It is testament to the staff that during the time of significant change, learner performance indicators have actually improved."
A spokeswoman for the Scottish government said enrolment figures would rise "as school-leavers sign up for courses over the summer", adding: "In each of the past three years, we have exceeded our target to maintain the number of full-time-equivalent student places and have seen improvements that are giving students better opportunities while studying.
"Last year saw increases in the number of under-25s, over-25s and women studying full-time at college, and record levels of student retention, successful completion of courses and a 34 per cent increase in students progressing from college to university with advanced standing since 2009-10."
`Colleges can't afford to deliver on targets'
North East Scotland College is among those expected to be unable to meet its target on Weighted Student Units of Measurement - the measure used to track learning hours.
There has been a decrease in the number of enrolments in both part-time and full-time programmes in the past year, and the numbers of teaching and non-teaching staff have also fallen.
Principal Rob Wallen says: "The pressure on funding means that colleges can no longer afford to deliver over the activity target set for them - and the activity targets set for colleges have been reduced, although not as much as the related funding."