Older students, women returning to education and students in need of bursaries are to benefit from additional funds allocated to colleges by the government, the education secretary has confirmed.
In his long-awaited guidance letter to the Scottish Funding Council, Michael Russell said the extra #163;10 million announced by finance secretary John Swinney in February's budget would allow colleges to offer more courses to mature students, boost the value of bursaries and mitigate cuts to resources which would jeopardise student attainment.
The college sector should "turn (its) attention now to the matter of learners' success", Mr Russell said. "With the substantial additional investment we are making available - and the substantial improvement in efficiency the sector will be realising through mergers - we can now expect a step change in performance."
He wanted to see "substantial improvements" in the number of students completing courses, gaining qualifications, progressing to higher levels and getting jobs, he added.
The money should not be used to increase the already "substantial" reserves held by the sector, Mr Russell warned. Instead, it should help work towards effective regional colleges, improved outcomes for students and employers and flexible courses responsive to local need.
While the government focus on young students so far had been "absolutely necessary", part of the additional funding should now be allocated to courses for older learners, including part-time courses which will allow women to return to education. TESS has learned that #163;6.6 million will be invested by the SFC in this area.
The funding council should ensure that no college region would have to make efficiencies of more than 3.5 per cent in 2013-14, Mr Russell's letter said. To alleviate the pressure students are under, the value of student bursaries will be increased by #163;1.9 million, TESS has been told. Student associations will also be strengthened.
Some extra funding to help colleges smooth the regionalisation process should also be made available, Mr Russell told the SFC, adding that for 2014-15, it should plan its budget "on the basis of a modest cash increase".
Mr Swinney announced a #163;10 million reduction in the cuts originally proposed for 2013-14 in his final budget speech in February. The government also committed to retaining the college sector's budget at #163;522 million for the following year, reversing the #163;52 million cut originally proposed in the draft budget.
Mr Russell told TESS that increased student bursaries would mean "more money in the pockets of our hard-pressed students in times of economic difficulty".
"Further funding will also help colleges with increasing demand and help institutions work closely together on a regional basis," he said. "This is a substantial investment in a sector with enormous economic importance to Scotland and I am looking forward to working with the entire sector to ensure colleges continue to deliver for learners."
John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said Mr Russell's detailed guidance included "some good news for learners, such as a modest increase in bursaries next year to match inflation".
"Colleges have also been instructed to allocate more provision for adult learners, who account for the vast majority of students, which is very welcome," he added.
How the government and the Scottish Funding Council plan to invest the extra funding for 2013-14:
- #163;1.9 million for additional student support through bursaries and childcare
- #163;2.1 million targeted for some college regions to meet increased demand
- #163;6.6 million for additional learner places, including for women returning to study and part-time places
- #163;4 million to aid the "successful integration" of newly merging colleges.