Hundreds could be turned away
Further education is bracing itself. Although colleges have not done a full analysis, they are in little doubt that the recession may make them more popular than ever, as people facing redundancy or made jobless look to acquire new skills.
But they now face the dilemma of turning hundreds away, either because they cannot afford to offer places or do not have the capacity - despite bursary and childcare support for the coming academic year rising by 9.3 per cent to a record Pounds 79 million.
At Cardonald College in Glasgow, there was a 65 per cent increase in the number of 25 to 49 year olds applying for a place by mid-March, compared to the same time last year - up from 206 to 522. These were for full-time places; the general increase in applications was 71 per cent, up from 1,948 to 3,340.
Susan Walsh, the principal, says: "This shows that demand from the age group of people who are non-school leavers and vulnerable in terms of unemployment has more than doubled."
Stevenson College Edinburgh reports a similar trend, with applications up from 924 to almost 2,500, a 59 per cent rise. "That's without doing any marketing and interest is being expressed across all areas of the curriculum," principal Brian Lister says.
He suspects one of the reasons Edinburgh colleges might come under pressure is the freeze on recruitment in the city's financial sector, which would normally take on 2,000 school leavers a year.
Mr Lister is also concerned about the capacity of his and other colleges to absorb the increase in students, particularly since most of the additional numbers applying to Stevenson want full-time places. "That means they would all come in at the same time, whereas normally you can balance full-time and part-time places to maximise provision," he says.
At Reid Kerr College in Paisley, applications by the end of February had also risen, by 18 per cent compared to the same period last year, and it is highest for full-time courses. The college expects numbers to keep on growing, since applications from school leavers would not come in until after Easter or the end of the exams.
"The main reason for the increase is growth in redundancies," Audrey Cumberford, the vice-principal, comments. Most are seeking places in the creative industries, engineering, computing and nursing.
Another factor noted by Ian Graham, principal of John Wheatley College in Glasgow, where interest in places next session is also up, is that there has been an improvement this session in the number of students staying the course - "presumably because there are already fewer employment opportunities to tempt students to leave early."
Of course, the recession is not the only factor. Jewel and Esk in Edinburgh and Dalkeith, Langside in Glasgow and Motherwell suggested that their new and modernised buildings are likely to have played a part in increasing their figures.
Christina Potter, principal of Dundee College, which has seen applications rise by 25 per cent, also points out that, while some subject areas are more in demand and there is a decline in others, the balance may change if bursary funds cannot sustain growth in the former and interest in the latter picks up.
Bursary funding, already stretched, will be a key issue for many. Carnegie College in Fife, where overall demand for places is up by 65 per cent and for full-time places by 80 per cent, has already had to divert Pounds 300,000 from its own resources this year to support learners. It is still waiting to hear from the Scottish Funding Council whether it will be reimbursed.
Craig Walker, student president at Carnegie, has made an outspoken attack on the way bursaries are funded. "The cap on bursary pots unnecessarily restricts colleges from meeting demand year-on-year," he argues. Funding is based on previous intakes, with no allowance made for increased applications, Mr Walker states.
Despite the pressures, Bill McIntosh, Carnegie's principal, believes it is essential for colleges to work towards "the delivery of practical and vocally-based education to ensure we have the right skills base as we start to develop the Scottish economy in readiness for the opportunities that lie ahead."
Susan Walsh at Cardonald warns, however: "Part of our work will be to ensure that those hard-to-reach groups of learners with whom colleges have made great strides in recent years aren't lost as we work to get more potentially proactive and recently-redundant individuals back into employment."
More support for businesses
The Scottish college network has launched a Colleges Mean Business campaign to highlight how the sector can expand its support for businesses.
An independent survey commissioned by the Scottish Funding Council, published in 2007, revealed that knowledge transfer activities in the 43 colleges generated revenue of almost pound;40 million for more than 10,000 businesses in 2005-06.
Chris Travis, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, said this represented only 5 per cent of VAT-registered companies. "It means that the potential to work more closely with businesses is immense," he said.
Colleges are also being urged to develop closer links with local authorities to avoid creating a "lost generation" of young people during the recession. Fiona Hyslop, the Lifelong Learning Secretary, said it was vital for more local authorities to join with colleges in the senior phase of A Curriculum for Excellence, known as 16+ Learning Choices. Currently, 21 authorities are taking part, working with careers offices and colleges.