Targets are hit, but the vulnerable miss out
When Scottish Funding Council reports last week confirmed that there were thousands fewer students, thousands fewer staff and little progress in measures such as the completion rate for learners on FE courses, there was a notable intake of breath across the political spectrum. But as shocking as the figures were, they surely could not have been a surprise to anyone involved with the sector.
Part of the drop in student numbers, the government was quick to point out, was down to the move away from part-time and leisure courses towards full-time provision, aimed at getting students ready for work. There has clearly been a move towards supporting younger learners, too, as part of the government's strategy to tackle youth unemployment.
It is also worth bearing in mind that like most statistical measures, student headcount is most definitely an imperfect one - it doesn't take into account changes to the duration of courses, for example.
However, that does not change the reality of the murky situation that the figures illuminate. The fact is that there are now thousands fewer people in Scottish colleges than there were just a few years ago, and there are also significantly fewer staff there to teach and support those who do make it on to campus.
It is difficult to shake the feeling that it is those who are most in need of the second chance of a place at college who are losing out. Women with children reliant on evening courses, those needing to study part-time for whatever reason, older learners returning to the world of education after years away - these are the people on whom the impact is greatest.
One also wonders whether there is a link between the cut in staff numbers - principals spoke only months ago in front of a parliamentary committee about the increase in class sizes they had seen in their colleges - and the slow improvement in the percentage of students who successfully complete their courses. Keeping learners on track can sometimes require a great deal of attention, and teachers and lecturers working at their limit are always going to be less able to lend a helping hand.
Colleges can hardly be blamed for this. When significant restructuring coincides with huge budget cuts, difficult choices have to be made, particularly when there government priorities have to be met as well. The funding council figures also show that they have met the government's demand and focused on younger learners, and have consistently met their target of weighted student units of measurement (WSUMs) - the measure of student activity currently preferred by the government.
But students care very little about government targets and funding changes. And to the single mother who wants to take a part-time evening course to help her get back into work, improvements for 17-year-olds or indeed the hitting of a WSUMs target will be scant consolation.