Surge in new skills applications

Help for colleges to help students cope with the economic downturn is at the heart of the annual grant round for the 2009-10 academic year, details of which were announced yesterday. Neil Munro reports

Colleges have been experiencing a huge increase in demand for places - more than double in many cases - which they are not funded to provide. The surge in applications is being partly attributed to the recession and the need for redundant workers to acquire new skills.

Now, the Scottish Funding Council, which has already provided an emergency injection of Pounds 10 million this year for student childcare costs, has added another Pounds 6.9m in student support for the coming session. This brings the council's investment in student bursaries, childcare and discretionary funding to a record Pounds 79m, a 9.3 per cent increase on the current academic year.

It is part of a total Pounds 572m funding package for the 43 colleges in 2009-10, a Pounds 14m rise which is a slightly above-inflation hike of 2.5 per cent.

The SFC has earmarked Pounds 5m in the coming year (a 150 per cent increase) specifically for courses that support people and businesses hit by the recession, particularly those at risk of redundancy.

"This demonstrates our commitment to act decisively to support students who are affected by the recession," said John McClelland, the SFC chair.

The grant letter to colleges makes more explicit than before that, in line with the Government's policy on further and higher education, courses must be linked to national economic priorities.

"Colleges are asked to give priority to the rising number of applications for places at college from young people leaving school or who have recently left school as a result of the economic downturn, where jobs are harder to find and where there is increasing demand for longer courses and full-time provision. It should not be used for leisure and recreation provision.

"The council is in discussion with colleges on how existing guidance on activity eligible for funding should be developed to reflect this, particularly in relation to very short courses."

Of the total Pounds 572m package for colleges, Pounds 401m has been allocated to direct teaching costs, a Pounds 6m increase. The remaining sums are made up of additional income from fees the colleges will be assumed to earn from students, a Pounds 36m "strategic fund" for a range of activities such as enhancing student employability and widening access, and a grant to pay for increased employer contributions to lecturers' pensions.

Next year will also see more funding for capital investment in college buildings. This has been enhanced by the Scottish Government's move to allow public sector capital spending earmarked for 2010-11 to be brought forward, a concession to the recession. As a result, colleges have been given an extra Pounds 2.5m in 2008-09 and a further Pounds 6m in 2009-10.

In total, capital spending on the college estate will therefore rise from Pounds 28.3m this year to Pounds 38.2m in 2009-10.

How colleges fared

The changes in the colleges' teaching grant broadly reflect the average year-on-year increase of between 1 and 2 per cent (see table).

Local circumstances explain major differences. The big increases for Cumbernauld, Motherwell, Clydebank, Coatbridge, South Lanarkshire and North Highland colleges, for example, reflect additional money aimed at attracting more students in Lanark-shire, Dunbartonshire and the Highlands, where participation was out of line with the rest of the country.

Additional funding also went to Reid Kerr and John Wheatley colleges, following representations from Renfrewshire and Glasgow councils that local pupils needed more openings for vocational courses.

But the most striking change affects Stow in Glasgow, the only incorpor-ated college to face a cut in its grant (13.8 per cent). The funding council rejects any suggestion that this represents "punishment" for the college's refusal to take part in the flagship merger of Glasgow's four city-centre colleges. The Pounds 1.6 million reduction in Stow's grant, the council insists, is because two lots of courses fall outwith "fundable provision". Talks to resolve the problem continuing.

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