a Brexit from the European Union could lose the Scottish college sector millions and lead to a reduction in available student places, sector leaders have said.
This comes as Scottish Funding Council (SFC) figures show colleges receive more than £20 million a year as a result of EU membership, through the European Social Fund (ESF), which supports employability initiatives (see box, right).
More cash flows into Scottish colleges via the European Regional Development Fund, which helps specific areas in need of support, such as remote or deprived communities.
The Erasmus Plus scheme also helps colleges fund exchanges for staff and students.
‘Funding benefits all students’
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said that colleges had benefited from EU funding for some years. “Colleges utilise [it] in a way that benefits all students, for example, to develop and deliver courses that promote employability, which in turn has economic benefits for Scotland,” she said.
Scottish college managers agreed, with many foreseeing a tangible impact on their institution if funding was lost in the event of a referendum vote to leave on 23 June.
One college leader, who asked not to be named, said that ESF money had made up for some recent reductions in Scottish government funding for the college sector and had reduced the impact on student numbers.
“This is a very tangible benefit of membership of the EU. If we did not have the ESF-funded activity, we would recruit fewer students”, they said.
The leader added that ESF-backed activity in colleges amounted to about 2.5 per cent of their work, and losing those funds could mean between 150 and 200 people being denied access to education and training.
A spokesman for another college said that money from the European Regional Development Fund had helped pay for “buildings, equipment and training programmes, which otherwise may not have been available”.
It also allowed them to provide targeted assistance for those affected by long-term unemployment or those from socially deprived backgrounds, he added.
He said the money helped improve access to post-16 learning in remote rural areas, which strengthens rural economies. EU programmes, such as the Erasmus exchange programme, had also benefited staff and students.
According to SFC figures, 411 EU students from outside the UK were enrolled in Scottish colleges in 2014-15. That number has dropped significantly, along with student numbers generally, since 2012-13.
A spokesman for Dundee and Angus College said that the college had a number of projects that would not have been developed without EU funding support.
“Many of these projects concern work with young people from areas of multiple deprivation,” he said.
“At a time of national austerity, any further drop in funding could create a serious shortfall in delivery across a range of areas, thus threatening the number of places that we can offer.”
Tom Harris, director of the Scottish Vote Leave campaign, however, accused colleges of “irresponsible scaremongering”.
He said: “Colleges don’t receive any EU money – they receive UK taxpayers’ money, which has been filtered through the EU.
“After we vote leave, we will be able to continue to fund higher and further education to exactly the same level it currently enjoys. The only difference is that, instead of giving the money to the EU first, the government will fund colleges directly.”