College places for people with learning disabilities have been cut by over a third, research by the Scottish Consortium for Learning Disabilities (SCLD) has revealed.
A survey by the consortium, to which 17 of the over 40 further education colleges in Scotland responded, showed the number of part-time places for students with learning disabilities had been reduced from 2,155 to 1,413 this year, a 34 per cent cut.
A small-scale survey of students and their families, carried out as part of the same report, revealed students who had their provision cut were given little notice, adding to the pressure on families.
The cuts affected provision differently across Scotland. While some colleges have not made any cuts to their places for students with learning disabilities, others have cut part-time places altogether.
The number of full-time places has risen slightly, from 657 to 679. However, many people with learning disabilities are unable to attend college full-time and therefore depend on part-time provision, warns the SCLD report, entitled If I don't get a place next year, I don't know what I'll do.
Campaigners and parents place the blame partly on Government cuts to further education funding. Last year, colleges suffered a 10 per cent cut, and many had to reduce provision or cut courses. Further cuts of 13.5 per cent over the next three years were announced last month; they could translate into a real-term budget reduction of 20 per cent for colleges.
As colleges try to meet the Government pledge to give every 16 to 19-year- old a place in education or training at the same time as cutting costs, there are fears that places for people with learning difficulties, who are often older and continue in further education for longer, may be affected disproportionately.
Until this year, additional funding from the Scottish Funding Council for places for students with support needs provided an incentive for colleges to take in students with learning disabilities. However, with funding capped and more pressure on student numbers, the opposite may now be the case.
Guidance issued to colleges by the SFC calls for a stronger focus on employability, which may lead to a reduction in the kind of courses which are taken by students with learning disabilities, especially those who need the most support.
"We are very concerned that it is the people with the most complex needs who will be most affected," said Andy Miller, policy and practice development manager at the consortium.
Colleges shared the deep concern that funding cuts could have a disproportionate impact on the least advantaged, said John Spencer, convener of Scotland's Colleges' Principals' Convention.
"We hope to see the proposals and priorities in this budget assessed against their equalities impact for these and other disadvantaged learners," he said.
A Government spokeswoman said the reform proposals placed a heavy emphasis on meeting learners' needs and appreciated that some non-recognised qualifications had value in meeting the needs of people with disabilities.
Facts and figures
14 - Per cent of adults with learning disabilities were employed or on a work or training placement last year, according to national statistics.
13 - Per cent were attending college, most part-time, according to the same statistics.
1.8 - Is the additional weighting attracted by courses designed for people with additional support needs in the calculation of student funding.
50 - Of the 52 students with learning disabilities questioned in the SCLD survey said they were enjoying college.
(Source: SCLD report)
Greig Jenkinson has been attending "life skills", "work start" and "independent living" courses in the supported learning department at Kilmarnock College for the past four years.
But following last year's funding cuts at the college, his provision has been reduced from three-and-a-half days per week last term, to one day per week this term.
For the 20-year-old, who has Down's syndrome, the changes have been difficult, his father, Simon, told TESS.
"Greig loved college last year. People with Down's syndrome like things to be the same, and Greig gets a bit flustered and worried when things change.
"Now he'll say, `I don't want to go to college, I can't be bothered'."
The courses focus on skills such as cooking and ironing to prepare him for a more independent life after college. But with the reduction in hours, his family has had to try to find other things for him to do. The social aspect of college has been important to Greig, said Mr Jenkinson.
Staff cuts have also impacted on other areas of Greig's college experience. "Because of the amount of staff being cut, they physically haven't got the staff to monitor these guys. Greig has gone out of the college into the town before and it has not been seen," his father said.
Mr Jenkinson is also concerned about the long-term impact: "I would like to see more days at college for him. The big picture is to encourage him to look after himself a little bit more. There is going to come a time when we aren't here."
Original headline: People with learning difficulties see their college places slashed