THE number of students studying at Scottish colleges has fallen to the lowest level on record.

A Scottish Funding Council (SFC) report found numbers in further education have dropped by 10,000 since last year.

Since the SNP came to power in 2007 the college student figures have declined from 379,233 to the current figure of 226,919.

The drop of 40 per cent comes at a time when the Scottish Government has prioritised full-time study leading to qualifications at the expense of shorter courses.

Iain Gray, Scottish Labour's opportunities spokesman said the SNP's record on further education was "nothing short of a disgrace".

He said: "No matter how they try to dress this up, these figures show that there are now 152,000 fewer students in colleges than there were when the SNP came to power.

"In particular, second-chance learners, women returners to work, workers seeking new skills, people with learning disabilities have all been squeezed out."

Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative young people spokeswoman said thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds were "losing out achieving their dreams".

She added: "The Scottish Government has repeatedly slammed the door on those seeking to better themselves and it is no wonder many businesses are increasingly worried about a skills gap.

"A crisis is looming in further education and the Cabinet Secretary and First Minister must address this dramatic fall in student numbers before it is too late."

However, Education Secretary Angela Constance said 2015 had been a "landmark year" for Scotland's young people.

She highlighted the fact that colleges are now spending a much greater proportion of their time working with students on courses that lead to a qualification with so-called full time equivalent student numbers relatively static.

She said: "The ambitious changes in our college system continue to bed in following a period of intensive reform and will ensure colleges are focused on our economic growth.

"We have once again comfortably exceeded targets on full-time equivalent college student numbers and these figures suggest our reforms are working.

"More students successfully complete full-time courses leading to recognised qualifications that lead to additional study or to relevant training or work."

Additional SFC figures on college performance show that in 2014/15, 23,717 students successfully completed courses - the highest-ever number.

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: "Almost 5,000 more students successfully completed their college courses this year compared to five years ago.

"This is encouraging and reflects an eight per cent improvement in pass rates since 2009/10. It shows that colleges are making a significant contribution to delivering a skilled workforce that meets the needs of Scotland’s economy."

Meanwhile, statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show a record 34,775 Scottish students were accepted to university last year. Overall enrolments at Scottish institutions rose by one per cent to 232,570 for 2014/15.

In a separate development, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) teaching union has called on the Scottish Government to intervene in a row over the equalisation of pay in the college sector.

Under a recent merger programme college salaries were supposed to be brought under a national collective bargaining arrangement, but little progress has been made.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said: "It is increasingly clear that the Scottish Government's manifesto aim of delivering national terms and conditions for the college sector by voluntary means is in danger of failing.

"The current national bargaining process is starting to come apart as it seems entirely voluntary for individual colleges to participate or not."