Despite stretched finances and fears that mergers could hamper community access, colleges have managed to increase the number of outreach and community centres from which they offer courses, TESS can reveal.
Out of the 11 colleges that responded to a TESS survey, only two said they now offered classes at fewer outreach centres than in 2013-14 - the first year as a merged college for many regionalised institutions. Four of the colleges have maintained the number of centres, while five have increased their offering, leading to an overall rise from fewer than 200 centres in 2013-14 to 232 now.
When the government announced its regionalisation agenda almost four years ago, at a time when the sector was due to be hit by significant funding cuts, it was feared that larger, regionalised institutions would mean restricted local access to courses. The government also called for a focus on full-time courses for younger learners, which are less likely to take place at community and outreach centres.
Since then, Scotland's 37 colleges have been reorganised into 13 regions, most with only one college. Audit Scotland also reported earlier this year that government funding for colleges had fallen by 12.3 per cent in real terms between 2011-12 and 2013-14. However, the TESS survey indicates that colleges dealing with the tough new financial settlement haven't viewed community provision as an easy target for cuts.
Shona Struthers (pictured, left), chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said colleges had done "extremely well to maintain provision despite going through a period of significant reform".
"It is encouraging that a number of colleges have even managed to increase the number of community and outreach centres they deliver classes at. This demonstrates their commitment to the Scottish government's ambition of widening access and offering equality of opportunity," she added.
Ms Struthers told TESS that the centres provided "a valuable lifeline for local communities, allowing people to learn while still being able to work andor care for their loved ones".
"Often, these flexible learning opportunities are the only possible way for people to improve their skills and earning potential - they offer a pathway into employment," she said.
Ms Struthers added that with the implementation of Developing the Young Workforce, the government's youth employment strategy, more college provision could take place outside college campuses in the future.
Glasgow Kelvin College now supports learning at 69 centres, compared with 43 in 2013-14. A large proportion of that increase results from the launch of its Community Achievement Awards in the last academic year. The scheme aims to support some of the more deprived neighbourhoods in the college's local area by validating learning opportunities at a number of community organisations.
Principal Alan Sherry told TESS that the success of the John Wheatley Learning Network underscored Glasgow Kelvin's clear commitment to its community. The college's efforts had been supported by continued investment from Glasgow City Council's Community Planning Partnership and community regeneration organisation the Wheatley Group, he added.
"The learning network is a prime example of widening access to learning as it also supports the delivery of our youth access programme and is the conduit for the Community Achievement Awards, both of which support the strategic aims of the Wheatley Group, the local authority and government," Mr Sherry said. "Glasgow Kelvin College is justifiably proud of our achievements through the learning network and, with the continued commitment from the partnership, we look forward to developing further provision in this area."
Serving deprived areas
A spokesman for the Scottish government said: "We believe that access to education is key and outreach centres are an important part of delivering education across Scotland.
"It is through outreach centres that education is provided in some of Scotland's most remote rural areas. And in some of our most urban deprived areas they are crucial in ensuring that people, wherever they are, have an opportunity to learn, develop and improve their skills.
"We welcome that colleges share our ambition of making sure that educational opportunities are provided in the heart of the community through such centres."
The EIS agreed. A spokesperson said the teaching union "believes that maintaining access to FE provision is key to maintaining a national and inclusive college sector, and that provision needs to be close, local and accessible".
They added: "Properly resourced and staffed outreach centres form a part of that provision, but there should be no postcode lottery on FE provision."