SOME Scottish colleges have seen their student numbers slump by more than half as a result of a controversial change in government policy.
Scottish Government ministers have asked colleges to prioritise full-time courses for teenagers as part of moves to tackle youth unemployment.
That means overall study has remained broadly similar, but there has been a sharp reduction in the number of students accessing part-time courses.
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Although some of these do not lead to recognised qualifications, they are seen as vital in giving those from deprived backgrounds access to education.
A Freedom of Information request by the Scottish Labour Party shows for the first time how individual colleges have been affected by the move.
Since 2007/08, the former Stow College in Glasgow has seen numbers drop by 64%, from 11,400 to 4100.
Cumbernauld College experienced a drop of 58% from 7100 to 3000, while student numbers at Banff and Buchan College declined by 68% from 16,600 to 5300.
The figures also show that, as a result of a merger of colleges to form City of Glasgow College, the sector has seen a 33% reduction over the period.
Overall, there has been 50% reduction in the number of students attending college on courses that do not lead to a recognised qualification.
Kezia Dugdale, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Labour Party, attacked the Scottish Government's record on funding of further education.
She said: "The real impact of the SNP's cuts can be seen in these figures and no amount of spin by Education Secretary Mike Russell can disguise the devastating impact.
"Student numbers have been drastically cut across Scotland. Women are disproportionately affected, as well as students with no qualifications at all.
"The SNP talk of fairness, but their record tells the truth. These cuts have taken away the opportunities of thousands of Scots to improve their education, retrain and help get back into the workplace."
Gordon Maloney, president of student body NUS Scotland, said too much of a focus on full-time courses ran the risk of excluding those who needed a place most.
He said: "While it's welcome that full-time equivalent places have continued to be protected, obviously we need to look at the full range of opportunities on offer. It's particularly worrying to see such a big drop in the numbers of college students with no prior qualifications. College is often their only chance to get that first step towards further and higher education and it would risk all the hard work colleges do on access if that was to be compromised."
He said the government had recognised the concerns last year and provided additional funding for part-time places.
He added: "The government and colleges need to do everything in their power to continue that and ensure the opportunities are there for all students."
A Scottish Government spokesman defended the changes, saying: "Our reforms to the college sector mean they are more focused than ever on delivering more full-time courses for young people that help people get jobs and give employers the skills they need to grow.
"Our commitment is to maintain full-time equivalent student numbers - colleges exceeded that commitment in the most recent figures, whereas headcount takes no account of the intensity or economic relevance of courses.
"We have maintained high levels of college investment, with a budget floor of £522 million in 2013-14 and maintained in 2014-15 through an additional £51m beyond planned spend. This includes £6.6m in each of these years to enable colleges to create additional part-time opportunities where there is a need to do so."