Colleges are reporting a downward trend in the number of students enrolling on higher education courses, according to a TES Scotland survey of the 11 leading FE players. But there are differing views on the precise impact of the introduction of tuition fees and the switch from maintenance grants to loans.
Tony Godden, principal of West Lothian College, firmly believes the changes have had an effect. Maxwell Sharp, depute principal of Falkirk College, says it is impossible to say without fuller analysis of the figures.
Student numbers enrolling on West Lothian's higher national certificate and higher national diploma courses are down 6 per cent, from 315 to 295. Only mechatronics and electronics show an increase. Falkirk shows a 13 per cent drop in the number of new HE full-time enrolments, from 1,042 to 905.
"The prospect of paying fees has clearly had an effect," Mr Godden says. "But a more important factor is the withdrawal of the maintenance grant, which particularly affects mature students. To turn round to a 40-year-old and say they should pay their way through college by taking out a loan and then repay it once they find a job is not an attractive proposition."
Douglas Law, depute principal of Fife College, believes FE is facing "a blip rather than a trend which will sort itself out once the new system beds in". Fife's first-year HNCHND enrolments are down 8 per cent but those signing up for a second year, who will not pay fees which apply only to new students, are up 25 per cent.
Glasgow College of Building and Printing has the same experience of a 2 per cent decline in first-year HE intakes but a 9 per cent rise in second-year numbers. "The problem is not the fee but the fact that students have to work to pay their way," Tom Wilson, the college's principal, states.
"But loans are not a worry and students are now as accustomed to queuing for their loans as they were for their grants."
Colleges generally recruit from lower income groups than the universities which means that 70 per cent of HE students in colleges will be exempt from paying anything towards the means-tested fee, compared with only 40 per cent of university students.
Once potential students realise this, they should not be put off, Mr Law believes. Admissions staff at Fife report that the reaction is not "I can't afford to go to college" but "How do I handle this?" By contrast, at Bell College in Hamilton, where all students are on HE courses, there has been a surge in numbers on year-long HNC programmes.
"Our feeling, although it is largely anecdotal, is that students are being cautious about committing themselves to more than a year's study because of fees, although they may be perfectly capable of doing so," Jennifer Rees, assistant principal, says.
Colleges have had to work hard to clear up confusion. At Inverness, where numbers for full-time advanced courses are down 11 per cent from 972 to 866, a spokesman said many National Certificate students believed they would be required to pay fees and take out loans, despite the fact that charges only apply from age 18 upwards and they will still be entitled to bursaries as well.
Inverness has suffered a 23 per cent fall in the number of students embarking on HNC courses, and believes the fees and loans package has put people off. Benefits rules are another complicating factor since students in continuous education are not entitled to them and have to take out a loan instead.
Further down the A9, Pauline Parr, assistant principal of Perth College, says the position is not as bad as it had feared, although detailed figures were not available. "The crunch point will come in November when students have to pay the first instalment towards their fee," she commented.
Aberdeen College reports a similar position to last year. "There are variations from subject to subject but that's the case every year," Roddy Scott, assistant principal, says. "We can't see that tuition fees have had any discernible effect."
Numbers at James Watt College in Greenock also appear to be holding up. But Alastair Shaw, assistant principal, says the college is analysing age-groups to check its impression that enrolments from the over-25s are down. "I suspect the reason is to do with the abolition of the mature student's allowance," Mr Shaw says.
A spokesman for Edinburgh's Telford College said student numbers were up overall. Recruitment for full-time places, which included non-advanced National Certificate students as well as those on HE courses, was "holding its own".
The most cheerful note was struck at Dundee College where a spokesman noted a "quite surprisingly buoyant position". The experience of departments ranges from a standstill in recruitment to substantial increases in others - 30 per cent up in business subjects, for example. It believes a course revamp, introducing 16 new programmes, has proved attractive to students and is paying dividends.
The attitude of students to the funding support regime will be watched anxiously by universities since 40 per cent of entrants to HE start off in college. Any fall in numbers will also mean the Government's ambitions for lifelong learning, including the target of an extra 500,000 students in FE and HE by 2002, will not be realised.