Nearly half of Scottish colleges face having part of their funding clawed back because they failed to meet ambitious targets for the delivery of courses last year, a new report shows.
The document reveals that although the sector as a whole exceeded the target set by the Scottish Funding Council (SFC), six out of 13 colleges fell short.
Institutions that fail to meet their targets, which include aspects such as the number of courses offered and students enrolled, are at risk of having part of their budgets taken back by the SFC.
The report, published by the body last week, sets out what the college sector achieved last year and the commitments that the college regions have made for 2016-17 through so-called “outcome agreements”.
These agreements are drawn up between the SFC and the individual regions, and spell out what is expected of them in return for their funding. Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Edinburgh, Fife, Lanarkshire and West colleges all delivered fewer learning hours than agreed, although in all cases by less than two per cent.
But seemingly small shortfalls can still result in institutions losing money: last year TESS reported that more than £1.8 million in funding was recovered from Ayrshire College, Fife College and West College Scotland for falling just short of their target in 2013-14.
Also last year, the SFC negotiated a reduction in its target with Edinburgh College, and has since agreed reallocation of student places for 2015-16 with other colleges.
An SFC spokesman said that it was able to claw back funding “in certain circumstances” but added that “supporting and nurturing colleges in Scotland” was “central” to its role. “We would always ensure that colleges are not penalised for setting and working towards ambitious outcomes,” he said.
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, stressed that the college sector as a whole had met its SFC delivery targets every year for the past decade and was delivering on government policy priorities such as economic growth and widening access.
She added that there had been some redistribution of credits between colleges, and said Colleges Scotland was seeking further flexibility regarding targets at a regional level.
Colleges fall short in catering for the poorest students
Five college regions fell short of delivering a high enough proportion of their courses to learners from the 10 per cent most deprived postcodes, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) report shows.
But some of these regions have a very small proportion of their local population from the poorest backgrounds, making it more difficult for them to recruit from that group.
In Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire, for example, only 2.3 per cent of the population live in one of Scotland’s most deprived postcode areas. However, its single institution, North East Scotland College, had a target to deliver 6.2 per cent of its provision to students from these areas in 2014-15.
The college fell short of the target, delivering 4.8 per cent of its provision to students from the poorest neighbourhoods. Principal Rob Wallen said that his institution was committed to the widest possible access to its courses.
“Meeting the target of increasing the proportion of our students from those areas is, however, dependent on factors over which the college does not have control,” he said.
“The important thing is not meeting some arbitrary target but in ensuring that each young person, irrespective of background, can access a college course if they choose to do so — and the college has an excellent track record in that regard.”
Fife College also fell short of its recruitment target. A spokeswoman said: “This target is twice that of the proportion of those living in deprived areas and therefore a very difficult target to reach.”
She said that the college would “continue to strive” to meet its targets on widening opportunities among disadvantaged students.
An SFC spokesperson said: “SFC’s focus is on securing long-term commitments from universities and colleges across Scotland to make learning more accessible for students from disadvantaged and challenging backgrounds.”
It has announced £40 million to pay for colleges and universities to take measures to widen access.