The number of college students taking arts courses has plummeted, new figures reveal, with headcount in some subjects dropping by more than 80 per cent in five years.
According to data from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), the student headcount for dance courses at further education colleges fell by 83 per cent between 2007-08 and 2013-14, from 4,328 to just 732. In music performance, it decreased by more than 70 per cent in the same period, from 4,541 to 1,307. Meanwhile, the number of theatre and dramatic arts students dropped by a third.
The shift away from arts in colleges has been criticised by NUS Scotland. The union's president Gordon Maloney told TESS that such subjects "rightly enrich our society and should have a strong place in education".
"Although much of the focus around colleges in recent years has centred on vocational courses and links with industry, we can't neglect the full range of college courses that should be available to students, or downplay their value," he said.
Mr Maloney described the levels of financial support available for college students as "barely there", adding: "We're extremely concerned that this could see colleges closing their doors to new students, or individual students getting less financial support, or even none at all."
Although the number of students taking general performing arts courses is now higher than it was in 2007-08, it has more than halved since its peak in 2010-11.
The number of student units of measurement - which are how the funding council measures activity at colleges - dropped by 45 per cent in dance between 2007-8 and 2013-14. The provision of theatre, dramatic arts and music performance also declined by 8 per cent.
The figures emerged as concerns about the number of college places for arts students were raised by members of the Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee.
Conservative education spokeswoman Mary Scanlon told the committee that the figures were "not exactly going in the right direction for us to be an international leader in youth arts".
Other politicians stressed, however, that the trend was down to a refocusing of college activity. An SFC report published earlier this month said it was expecting a drop in the headcount on arts courses because colleges had been directed to "prioritise more substantive courses designed to improve students' employment prospects and reduce the number of students enrolled on leisure programmes and very short programmes of study".
Addressing the education committee, Kenny McGlashan, chief executive of Youth Theatre Arts Scotland, welcomed the "streamlining" of part-time courses throughout the college sector. This, he said, was expected to continue as a result of the widespread reforms the sector had undergone in recent years.
Mr McGlashan said he had met young people who had been disappointed by part-time study. "I would be working with young people on a summer project and they would be coming to me full-time for five weeks to work on a youth theatre production, and they would go away having had a life-changing experience," he said.
"Then they would go on to a further education course, and when I met them a little bit down the line they would be talking about the fact that they were only in college for two days a week and not getting the same quality of experience, because they were not doing it full-time."
A Scottish government spokesperson said curriculum planning was "a matter entirely for colleges" but added that "our reforms do mean that colleges are more focused than ever on skills for work and economic growth".
"Figures published this month from the Scottish Funding Council show that approach is paying dividends: colleges have exceeded targets on student places, and since 2008-09 there has been a 33 per cent increase in college enrolments successfully completing full-time courses leading to recognised qualifications," they said.