College students and staff have reiterated concerns that a large proportion of students are not successfully finishing their courses – but have welcomed figures showing that progress is being made to widen access for those from the poorest backgrounds.
A report published by the Scottish Funding Council this week shows that colleges are taking on a larger proportion of students from the most deprived backgrounds and more younger students, but success rates have dropped along with overall student numbers.
The SFC report confirmed that the overall number of students in Scotland’s colleges fell from 347,336 in 2009-10 to 226,919 in 2014-15. However, the report does highlight progress in widening access into higher education both at colleges and at university.
One step forward…
At colleges, the proportion of full-time equivalent places (FTEs) delivered to students from the 10 per cent most-deprived areas increased marginally from 16.2 per cent in 2013-14 to 16.4 per cent in 2014-15. In 2009-10, that figure stood at 15.7 per cent. The biggest increase has been in higher education courses – which make up a significant proportion of all Scottish college provision.
However, the figures also show that the rate of students who complete their full-time FE course with at least partial success dropped between 2013-14 and 2014-15 for the first time since 2009-10, from 77.3 per cent to 74.6 per cent.
The figures are being taken by many as further evidence of the impact of the government’s reform programme, with colleges having merged and formed college regions as funding was reduced.
One college principal told TESS it was clear that the reforms and reductions in funding have had an adverse effect on attainment, particularly for the most vulnerable.
“The report highlights that Scottish government is highly dependent on the college sector to provide access to higher education for those from the most deprived data-zones. On this evidence, there is a need to revisit the Commission on Widening Access recommendations in order to place greater emphasis on 2 plus 2 articulation arrangements.”
The principal, who did not wish to be named, added that the decline in student places had had a detrimental impact on adult returners who wish to study part-time in order to gain the skills required by the labour market.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, which represents college lecturers, said that the sharp decline in student headcount was no surprise, and was symptomatic of both deep cuts to further education funding and major restructuring.
“The EIS has repeatedly warned that cuts to college funding, coupled with a programme of restructuring and changes to government policy, have placed a major squeeze on the further education sector and led to the loss of courses, student places, jobs and opportunities across Scotland,” he added.
‘The right direction’
Vonnie Sandlan, president of NUS Scotland, said that the statistics showed colleges and universities were slowly but steadily moving in the right direction towards fair access.
“But this report also raises real areas of concern, not least an increase in the numbers of students not completing their course, which further highlights the need for urgent and bold action to improve the support those students receive,” she added.
Colleges are delivering significantly more full-time provision than they have done in the past, and the student cohort is getting younger. Across their FE provision, the proportion of those aged 20 to 24 increased from 15.4 per cent to 18.9 per cent between 2009-10 and 2014-15, while the proportion of those aged 25 or older dropped from 31.6 per cent to 29.4 per cent.
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said she was pleased that the report recognised the increase in the proportion of full-time equivalent college provision for students from the most deprived areas. “This is an example of colleges delivering on government policy priorities such as widening access and reducing inequalities,” she said.