More than pound;1.8 million in government funding has been clawed back from colleges that failed to meet their targets for provision, TESS can reveal.
Figures from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) show that three of Scotland's 13 college regions did not meet their targets for the number of hours of learning provided in 2013-14, leading the funding council to reclaim some pound;600,000 from each one.
Ayrshire College had been tasked with delivering 183,269 WSUMs (weighted student units of measurement) - the official measure of learning hours delivered - in 2013-14, but fell 3,386 short of its target. Fife College delivered 3,496 fewer units than its 176,084 target, and West College Scotland failed to reach its 216,326 target by 3,470 WSUMs.
A spokesman for the SFC told TESS the targets had been negotiated as part of individual college outcome agreements. He stressed that the overall target for Scottish colleges in 2013-14 had been exceeded.
"SFC's conditions of grant state that if a college falls short of the agreed target, we will consider recovering the value of the undelivered hours of learning," the spokesman said. "The money we recover goes back into the college sector to be used, for example, for student support funding."
The three colleges affected cited the difficulties posed by structural change, mergers and financial cuts. A spokeswoman for Fife College said that colleges had seen their unit price of funding fall by 20 per cent, which had "a substantial impact on the way we deliver courses, allowing no margin for error".
The reduction also meant the college was unable to increase the number of places for students, she said, adding that the merger had "inevitably" affected targets and what the college was able to deliver, resulting in a "serious impact" on its budgets.
A spokeswoman for Ayrshire College said it had delivered 14,010 more WSUMs in 2013-14 than it had the previous year - up almost 10 per cent.
"It is unfortunate that nearly pound;600,000 had to be repaid to the Scottish Funding Council for a small shortfall of 1.84 per cent on our weighted SUMs target, particularly in a year of such momentous change for the college," she added.
The merger of Clydebank, James Watt and Reid Kerr colleges that created West College Scotland had created challenges around "systems integration and achieving the recruitment ambitions that had been set by the previous individual colleges during our first year of operations", a spokesman said.
The college was confident of meeting its targets for 2014-15, but the ongoing reductions in core funding presented "a significant challenge", the spokesman added.
Outcome agreements were introduced by the government in 2013. Despite the tightened financial settlement, the 2013-14 agreements required FE institutions to increase provision by 4 per cent on the previous year.
It is not yet clear if colleges will be able to meet their targets for this year and the financial climate remains difficult. Last autumn, finance secretary John Swinney set the FE budget for 2015-16 at pound;526 million - significantly less than the pound;580 million allocated in 2010-11.
Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers told TESS that institutions had continued to meet targets for learning, delivering 76 million hours in 2013-14. She added that they were "confident they will continue to deliver on activity targets despite a tough settlement for the 2015-16 financial year".