Colleges are struggling to support their poorest students, according to figures from the National Union of Students in Scotland which claims bursary funding is in "meltdown".
Almost two-thirds of the 29 colleges that responded to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from the union said funding for bursaries was insufficient to deal with demand in 2009-10. The survey revealed that 41 per cent had to dip into their reserves to maintain the level of support for each eligible student, while 24 per cent were forced to cut the amount per student.
College bursaries, which can be for up to pound;89 per week per student, provide support to allow poorer students to go into full-time education.
The Scottish Government argues it has maintained college places, while the draft allocations from the Scottish Funding Council issued before Christmas show a pound;282,000 increase in bursary and other forms of student support for the 2011-12 academic year.
But Liam Burns, president of NUS Scotland, said: "Protecting college places was absolutely right, but there is little point in providing this funding to colleges if students can't afford to study in them. Bursaries are a vital lifeline for the poorest college students in Scotland."
The funding council has provisionally allocated pound;84.2 million to colleges in the next academic year for student bursaries, childcare and special discretionary support. The figure shown for the current year is pound;83.9m - but this omits an extra pound;3.5m paid out in the course of the year, bringing the total in 2010-11 to pound;87.4m which is itself a fall from the pound;90.9m paid out in 2009-10. Colleges had requested an additional pound;12.3m in bursary funds to cope with the demand for student places.
Taking inflation into account, NUS Scotland claims that college bursaries face real-term cuts of over pound;1.7m in the next academic year, which Mr Burns described as "entirely unacceptable". He added: "College bursaries were already failing but, with this cut, we could risk a meltdown in the system.
"Even before these cuts, bursary funds have been inadequate for the poorest college students to live on. To plug the gap, many have been forced into credit card debt, working too many paid hours during term time, or even dropping out altogether. Rather than cutting bursaries, we need to increase them at least to the poverty line.
The Scottish Labour Party has urged Education Secretary Michael Russell to take immediate action. Claire Baker, the party's spokeswoman for further and higher Education, commented: "Under the SNP, we are seeing colleges struggle with demand for bursaries and vulnerable students missing out on vital support on a regular basis. It is unacceptable that this college bursary fiasco continues to happen and is getting worse."
The bursary crisis reflects what the funding council admits is an "unprecedented reduction" in college and university budgets. Virtually every college will have a 10.4 per cent cut in its core teaching grant for next year, and principals are predicting over 2,000 job losses throughout the FE sector as a result.
Scotland's Colleges, representing principals and boards of management, says the position could have been much worse. "The deal is the best we could have got under the circumstances," said Ben McLeish, its director of sector development. "We stuck to our line about treating every college equally and all our efforts will now go towards sustaining stability for our staff, students, employers and communities."
The amounts available for student funding would "never be enough", he added.