The number of unqualified adults studying at colleges in Scotland has more than halved in five years, prompting fears that potential students from deprived backgrounds are being excluded from the system.
In 2007-08, 132,176 adults aged 25 to 59 without formal qualifications were enrolled on courses at Scottish colleges. However, this fell to just 61,327 in 2012-13.
Evidence submitted by Colleges Scotland to the Scottish Parliament's Education Committee highlights a significant reduction in access courses in the wake of the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)'s decision in 2009 to stop financing them. The SFC estimates that approximately half the drop in overall college enrolments can be attributed to this.
Colleges Scotland said that adults with no qualifications often opted for introductory courses that might not lead to formal qualifications but prepared them for further learning. John Henderson, the body's chief executive, said that the term "non-recognised qualifications" could be misleading. "These can be an important route into vocational education for those furthest from the labour market," he said.
Mr Henderson explained that colleges had made great progress on delivering more full-time education for young people in the past few years in response to the Scottish government's priorities. But he added: "The college sector would welcome any additional funding to increase places for adults."
Gordon Maloney, Scotland president of the National Union of Students, agreed. "Many non-recognised qualifications are access or taster courses, providing opportunities to progress into further, recognised study," he said.
"Where they achieve that progression, we shouldn't be looking to cut them but instead to ensure that they are recognised. Students looking to get back, or progress, into further and higher education deserve to have these qualifications recognised to ensure they can move on to jobs or other qualifications."
He added that colleges provided "real opportunities to those from our most deprived backgrounds, disabled and older learners wanting to retrain or upskill, and to get that first chance at further and higher education that they rightly deserve".
Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur said that the SNP had been "quick to dismiss concerns" over budget cuts and the devaluation of part-time college courses. "Many of these introductory and pre-access courses act as an entry point for adults with no qualifications, or looking to reskill," he said.
"The figures from Colleges Scotland show the extent of the impact on older learners without qualifications, with less than half the number now accessing courses as in 2007-08. These are precisely the people colleges are best placed to support."
Labour education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale said: "We have known for a long time that the reduction in part-time places for adults has had a devastating impact and these figures are more evidence of this.
"Adults wishing to retrain are being kept out of our colleges. Mothers wanting to reskill and get back into work are being denied access to courses they need."
A Scottish government spokesman said the SFC had made it clear that short courses with a focus on employability would continue to be funded. "Those no longer being funded were often of a recreational nature, did not lead to recognised qualifications and generally lasted around five hours," he added.
"Colleges are now sharply focused on helping people, including older students, develop the skills they need to get a good job. To that end, [the] latest figures show a significant increase in the number of full-time equivalent students studying recognised qualifications. We have also invested an additional pound;6.6 million for new places in 2013-14, with older learners being a priority group. This is not reflected in the figures, which cover the period up to 2012-13."