A dramatic decrease in the number of students at Scottish colleges is damaging their opportunities and having a disproportionate effect on women and part-time learners, politicians and colleges have warned.
Figures released by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) show that overall student numbers fell by a third in the five years from 2007-08 to 2012-13, down from 379,233 to 238,805. Part-time enrolments accounted for the vast majority of this decrease and enrolments by women dropped by almost 120,000.
There was also a stark decline in the number of staff employed in the sector, from 12,892 in 2008-09 to 10,622 in 2012-13.
In its baseline report on colleges, the SFC stressed that the drop in student numbers was caused in part by the move away from short and leisure-based courses in favour of full-time programmes and those focused on improving employability for younger learners.
Scottish Labour education spokeswoman Kezia Dugdale said the government's "raid on colleges" had seen "part-time courses slashed, teacher numbers cut and female admissions plummet".
"The result of SNP choices on ongoing education is thousands of lost opportunities for those whose only chance to access further study would be college," she said. "It's a disgrace and shows a complete lack of leadership and vision from the Scottish government."
The Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Liam McArthur was also critical. "The SNP's college cuts have clearly had an impact on opportunities for students," he said. "If we want to build a stronger economy and a fairer society which enables young people to get on in life, we should be opening doors to college opportunities."
Deep cuts to college funding have led to particularly significant declines in the number of students studying part-time.
According to Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, this has had a disproportionate impact on some groups such as women with childcare responsibilities and people with disabilities.
He said that the fall in staff numbers, particularly teaching staff, had "serious implications for the range of course provision available across the country". Investment had to be made to support colleges' "vital" role in the economy, he added.
Colleges have experienced dramatic reductions in their government budget, which has dropped from pound;580 million in 2010-11 to pound;522 million for 2013- 14.
In a bid to tackle Scotland's youth unemployment crisis, the government has asked colleges to focus their activity on full-time courses, particularly for 16- to 19-year-olds. Because of their limited resources, colleges have also in many cases cut their campus opening times and evening classes.
It is further expected that the curriculum will be pared back as part of the government's ongoing regionalisation programme, with localised course provision giving way to regional centres of excellence.
John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, stressed that colleges had responded to changing government priorities and were also delivering more full-time higher education courses than five years ago.
However, he said that limited finances meant institutions had limited options. "Delivering more flexible options for adult students is also desirable, and colleges could do more if additional resources were available," he said.
The performance indicators for colleges, also published by the SFC last week, revealed that completion rates for further education rose from 73 per cent in 2010-11 to 75 per cent in 2012-13, with pass rates also increasing from 62 per cent to 65 per cent.
Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, said: "Even with these increases, we're still not making fast enough progress on ensuring positive outcomes for all our students."
He added that colleges were doing "a fantastic job" of getting people from more disadvantaged backgrounds into further and higher education but said there needed to be "a real focus on supporting them to stay in once they're there, and throughout their course and beyond".
A Scottish government spokesman said that education secretary Michael Russell had repeatedly made it clear he wished any staffing changes to be achieved through voluntary means and that had been achieved "in the large majority of cases".
"Using headcount to measure college students takes no account of the intensity or economic relevancy of courses, and there is no distinction made between a course that lasts a few hours and a full-time higher national diploma," the spokesman added, saying that colleges had met the government's commitment on places.
"The Scottish government has also consistently provided additional investment beyond spending plans, to the tune of around pound;130 million since the 2011 spending review, making perfectly clear the priority we attach to colleges," he said.
Part-time further education enrolments:
Enrolments by women:
Number of hours of learning for students aged 25 and over:
Source: Scottish Funding Council.