Close gender gap or lose funding, colleges warned

25th September 2015 at 01:00
SFC sets out priorities in tough new outcome agreements

Colleges could face having their funding clawed back if they do not do more to address dramatic gender imbalances on certain courses, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) has said. They will also be asked to increase their provision for learners who require additional support.

In a new guidance document on delivering college outcome agreements for 2016-17, published earlier this month, the SFC says it will expect colleges to “begin to address...participation in college courses where there is a significant gender imbalance”.

SFC figures published in January show that 92 per cent of engineering enrolments at colleges in 2013-14 were male, as were 89 per cent of those on construction courses. By contrast, 73 per cent of the student enrolments on care courses were by women, as were 63 per cent of those on social subjects.

Regional outcome agreements set out what new college regions will be expected to deliver in return for their funding. An SFC spokesman told TESS: “We all want to make sure everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.”

The college sector was doing well in terms of widening access, the spokesman said, but there were “some intractable areas – in particular the gender imbalance in many subjects – where we all agree that change is needed”.

He added that although they were ambitious, outcome agreements were “realistic and negotiated with individual regions according to local circumstances”.

Colleges across Scotland are already taking action to tackle gender stereotypes in certain subject areas. Last month, TESS reported on a female-only engineering course piloted by the City of Glasgow College. A spokesman for the college said this week that it was proud of its approach to “diversity and equality”.

“We are committed to pioneering new ways to close the gender gap, particularly in subjects less likely to be chosen by male or female students,” he said.

He added that early indicators from the new engineering course had shown it boosting students’ confidence, making them “more likely to excel academically in this environment”.

“In the longer term, we hope it will also take us one step closer to widening access for women in engineering,” he said.

Opportunities for all

The SFC guidance also says that colleges must make more effort to work with disabled young people, care-leavers and black and minority ethnic (BME) groups.

In response, Colleges Scotland chief executive Shona Struthers said that colleges continued to meet their targets but could “deliver more with more resources”.

“Colleges uphold their statutory duties as set out in the Equality Act 2010 and this year, for the first time, all colleges published equality outcomes and mainstreaming reports,” she said. “The planning and provision that exists to allow disadvantaged individuals to experience college demonstrates that the sector is committed to providing the most opportunities available.”

A spokesman for the EIS teaching union said that pressure on further education budgets in recent years had “contributed to some very difficult cuts, with specialist and part-time courses often disproportionately affected”.

“Cuts to provision for students with additional support needs are a huge concern across the sector,” he added.

The SFC is undertaking a two-track evaluation process to understand how the sector is currently meeting the additional needs of students, and a report will be compiled next year.

Third-sector organisations have welcomed the SFC guidance. A spokesman for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition said it was known that 41 per cent of school-leavers from care went into FE, but one in 10 dropped out within a year. He noted also that 13 per cent of college students had declared a disability.

The spokesman added that the guidance was set against “a background of damaging budgetary cuts, requiring colleges to do more with less”. He said it was clear that investment was necessary to ensure that the guidance did not amount to “mere window-dressing”.

“In this respect, what would also be welcomed is some clear targets for those with disabilities and care experience in further education, including a targeted reduction in drop-out rates,” the spokesman said.

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