There is now abundant evidence that Scottish Government policy priorities have caused a fall in student numbers at the country's hard-pressed colleges, coming from those doing part-time courses.
With further education funding having been cut by £56m in 2011 and 2012, ministers have called on colleges to give priority to teenage students doing full-time courses that lead to a qualification. This has meant that part time, weekend and evening courses have been cut back, and student numbers have fallen by more than half in some colleges. Over a six year period, the former Stow College in Glasgow has experienced a drop in student numbers of 64%, from 11,400 to 4100. At Cumbernauld College, numbers have fallen by 58% from 7100 to 3000 and overall, there has been 50% reduction in the number of students attending college on courses that do not lead to a recognised qualification. This outcome, though unintended, is highly regrettable, as it disadvantages some of the most hard-to-reach would-be students from deprived communities and vulnerable groups.
On a superficial reading, focusing efforts on school leavers and giving priority to courses that lead to a qualification, makes sense. Guaranteeing every 16-to-19-year-old a place in education or training was supposed to help tackle the rising tide of recession-linked youth unemployment by ensuring young people had access to courses that could help them get jobs, and has had some success. Yet The Herald has previously warned that, well-intentioned as it may be, this measure was likely to have the serious inadvertent effect of making it harder to attend college for people who would prefer to, or can only do, part-time courses. And so it has. This includes many women with part-time jobs, child-care responsibilities or both, for whom part-time study is the only viable option. Previous figures have shown that female students, such as those looking to get back into the work place after having children, have lost out disproportionately as a result of this policy. It also includes people with learning difficulties, as well as many people with no prior qualifications, often from deprived backgrounds, for whom part-time college courses are a vital first step towards getting back into education. A large minority of students on short courses have additional learning needs and get vital help from colleges. Boosting their skills not only boosts their chances of finding work, but also of going on to study for solid qualifications, which in turn bestows better prospects in terms of earnings and quality of life. Scotland's colleges have an excellent track record in catering for these students and their work has been fundamental in efforts to extend equality of opportunity. That work is now being undermined.
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This has come about as a direct consequence of Scottish Government policies. If ministers are serious about tackling inequality and extending opportunities for all, then either an injection of funding is required to reinstate some part-time courses, or the existing requirement for colleges to favour full-time teenage students over others, must be relaxed.