The proportion of students successfully completing their FE college courses has dropped for the first time in six years, with some institutions experiencing dramatic falls in success rates, new figures reveal.
The drop has been blamed on students’ lack of financial support, a reduction in part-time and other flexible courses and the college regionalisation process.
The student success rate had risen steadily year on year from 58.8 per cent in 2008-9 to 65.9 per cent in 2013-14.
But this dropped by almost 2 percentage points in 2014-15, according to performance indicators published by the Scottish Funding Council last week.
Overall, the number of students successfully completing their course fell by 707 – to a proportion of 64 per cent – in that year.
Despite the modest average drop, the fall in some Scottish college regions was much more pronounced.
At Ayrshire College, the proportion of FE students successfully completing their course dropped from 65.8 per cent to 58.6 per cent.
Edinburgh College has also seen a significant fall, from 65.4 to 59.5 per cent, while at West College Scotland completions dropped from 65.3 to 59.8 per cent.
Vonnie Sandlan, NUS Scotland president, said the figures made for worrying reading. “While the latest figures on successful completion are still above where they have been in previous years, we shouldn’t be complacent or accept a move backwards,” she said. “We can’t forget the stark, and disgraceful, reality that 36 per cent of students are failing to complete their course successfully, or withdrawing altogether.
“We know that financial hardship puts a real strain on students’ ability to complete their studies, which these figures would appear to back up.
“The real concern is, without fundamental reform of the system, we’ll continue to see successful completion stagnate, or fall further.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, which represents college lecturers, said: “It may be that the prioritisation of full-time study over more flexible provision has created a situation where more students are enrolling on full-time courses that do not meet their individual needs and which offer less flexibility around caring responsibilities, employment, other learning and so on.”
Deep cuts to FE funding in recent years – including to student support – had created a situation where students “simply cannot afford” to continue their studies, he added.
Ifs, buts and cuts
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, pointed out that cuts were not the only reason why completion rates might be falling. Learners might also leave courses to take up a job or other training opportunities, she said. “The high pass rate for higher education students in colleges is encouraging, with almost 5,000 additional students successfully completing their courses in comparison to five years ago.
“This shows that colleges are making a significant contribution to delivering a skilled workforce that meets the needs of the Scottish economy”.
A spokeswoman for Ayrshire College said that a protracted period of industrial action in 2014-15 has caused considerable disruption. “These exceptional circumstances impacted on student retention, with an increase in early withdrawals and a more significant increase in further withdrawals for both FE and HE students,” she said.
Stephanie Graham, West College Scotland vice-principal, added: “Considerable analysis has taken place with our course teams and changes have been identified for this session. There appears to be a particular issue among younger students and those from our more deprived communities.”
In response to the figures, Edinburgh College principal Annette Bruton said that the merged college had experienced issues with recruitment and enrolment processes that had “probably contributed” but a lot of work had since been done to personalise student support.
The Scottish government pointed to a 0.1 per cent rise in completion rates on full-time HE courses in colleges, which means that there are now record numbers of full-time students completing courses.
“The ambitious changes in our college system are still bedding in, following a period of intensive reform,” a spokesperson added.
Listening to students’ concerns is vital, says college
South Lanarkshire College is bucking the trend and has managed to raise the number of students successfully completing its courses from 68 per cent in 2013-14 to 71 per cent in 2014-15. It is now seven percentage points above the Scottish average.
The college, part of the Lanarkshire multi-college region, was not involved in a merger as part of the regionalisation process. Principal Stewart McKillop says that passionate staff and courses designed to meet student and employer priorities are behind its success. “The college worked with the National Union of Students to identify those areas that students perceived to be barriers to achievement. It then developed a brochure, after consultation with the NUS, indicating how the college would tackle and overcome those barriers,” he explains.