THERE is no evidence a major restructuring of colleges has led to wider financial savings or improvements to education, a public spending watchdog has warned.

The findings by Audit Scotland come after a raft of mergers in the further education sector since 2011/12 which has seen the number of colleges fall from 37 to 20.

When the plans were announced, the Scottish Government said mergers would deliver £50 million of efficiency savings each year from 2015/16 and bring other benefits such as reduced duplication, better engagement with employers and better outcomes for students.

A report by Audit Scotland recognised that savings had come from a significant reduction in the number of teaching staff in colleges.

But it added: "It is unclear what savings have been achieved in addition to reduced staffing costs and what the full costs of the merger process are as there are no systems in place either at individual colleges or centrally to collect this information.

"It is also unclear what progress there has been in achieving some of the wider benefits expected from the mergers."

Caroline Gardner, the Auditor General for Scotland, said colleges had coped well with the changes, maintaining sound finances and completing mergers on time without negatively affecting students.

But she added: "Many of the effects of the mergers are still taking place, however, and there are continuing challenges for the sector.

"It's important that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) work with colleges to measure and publicly report on whether the reforms have delivered all of the intended benefits."

Paul Martin, convener of the Scottish Parliament's audit committee, expressed concern over the findings.

He said: "We were assured by the Scottish Government that the lessons identified... from previous public body mergers would apply to the mergers of Scotland's colleges.

"It is therefore a concern that this report finds there are no systems in place either at colleges or centrally to collect information on the full costs of the merger process - this was a key lesson from previous mergers."

Audit Scotland went on to highlight the significant funding reductions in further education over the past few years and the resulting reduction in jobs. Student numbers have also fallen dramatically.

The report said total student numbers were now 36 per cent lower than 2008/09, teaching staff had been cut by 9.2 per cent in the last two years alone and budgets were down £69m between 2011/12 and 2015/16.

Auditors identified six colleges where the way severance arrangements for senior staff were handled fell short of good practice. In North Glasgow College and Coatbridge College there were "significant shortcomings" in reporting and governance.

A spokesman for Colleges Scotland said: "It is important to stress the decisions taken on severance issues were made by some pre-merger colleges, and not by existing colleges.

"The new guidelines and governance arrangements that are now in place provide a more robust system which should ensure that a similar situation does not arise in the future."

Iain Gray, education spokesman for the Scottish Labour Party, said: "Fewer students, fewer staff and less money is the stark reality of the SNP's record on colleges."

Liz Smith, young people spokeswoman for the Scottish Conservatives, added: "It raises serious questions about the Scottish Government's priorities within further and higher education."

A Scottish Government spokesman said it had delivered on its commitment to maintain student places.

He added: "It is clear that our reforms have had a positive impact on colleges and their students, and have helped them deliver record levels of student retention, successful course completion and a 34 per cent increase in students progressing from college to university with advanced standing.

"Our aim was to maximise the impact of colleges with a sharp focus on supporting young people into work and to develop the skills they and our economy need. This has been borne out by recent youth employment levels with levels of female employment also increasingly strong.

"As with any change programme of this scale, there remains work to be done to realise the full benefits. The report is helpful in highlighting where improvements can be made and we will work closely with the SFC and colleges to ensure we build on the early positive impact resulting from our reforms."