Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of performing a “crashing U-turn” on college education by switching the Government’s focus away from full-time courses.

The Scottish Government had previously pledged to maintain the number of full-time equivalent students in Scotland’s colleges, as part of its efforts to cut youth unemployment.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie accused ministers of having “sneaked out” a change in policy on this.

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He pressed Ms Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood, saying the focus on full-time learners had resulted in the loss of 150,000 part-time college places.

He said: “The truth is that it has taken six years for this government to realise the economic value of part-time learners over the age of 24.

“This is a crashing U-turn and the First Minister should be big enough to admit it. Six years of narrowing the focus has left us short, that’s six years of missed economic opportunity, six years of abusing those in this chamber who dared to question the policy.”

He demanded that Ms Sturgeon “now apologise to the generation of women and older people who have lost out because of this government”.

The First Minister insisted the LibDem was “fundamentally wrong” as she told him: “I will not apologise for the fact we have youth unemployment at half of the rate today than when this government took office. Nor will I apologise for the fact that we fought an election on a manifesto commitment to maintain full-time equivalent numbers in our colleges and we didn’t just meet that manifesto commitment, we exceeded it. So these are solid achievements.”

She added: “The real flaw in Willie Rennie’s question here is in spite of delivering that commitment to increase full-time students at colleges in order to get more young people into work, the majority of courses at our colleges continue to be part-time courses.”

Mr Rennie argued the birth rate falling at the start of the millennium was responsible for the drop in youth jobless numbers.

Mr Rennie claimed: “Everyone knows the birth rate at the turn of the century is more responsible for the drop in youth unemployment than any policy of this government.”

But Ms Sturgeon argued SNP ministers had been right to focus on full time learners.

The SNP leader said: “This was a commitment we set out in a manifesto, given the rate of youth unemployment we faced at the time… And the proof of the pudding is in the eating, because youth unemployment today in Scotland is half the rate it was 10 years ago when we took office.”