AUDIT Scotland watered down a report into the state of Scotland’s colleges after the government officials suggested changes to a draft version of the document.

The watchdog dumped a reference to a 41 per cent drop in the student headcount since 2008 after a civil servant suggested a more “relevant reference point” of 2012.

Scottish Tory MSP Liz Smith said: “People will be horrified that civil servants can influence a body like Audit Scotland in this way to change a report.”

Audit Scotland said that any revisions to their document ahead of publication was as the result of “factual inaccuracies or evidence-based decisions by the audit team”.

In June, Audit Scotland’s review of colleges concluded that the sector’s financial health had deteriorated, but was “relatively stable”.

The report found that student numbers had decreased “slightly” in 2015/16 and, when measured by the full-time equivalent (FTE) yardstick, the figure was at its lowest level since 2006/07.

However, documents reveal that the scrutiny body’s initial draft was harder hitting and contained a greater detail on college student numbers.

In May, after receiving a copy of the draft, Scottish government official Paul Johnston sent a letter to Auditor General Caroline Gardner about possible changes.

Referring to a meeting between the government, the Scottish Funding Council and Audit Scotland, he said:

“My colleagues highlighted a small number of areas where it is felt that the tone of the report could be more balanced as well as the reference point for statistical comparisons. The report compares data as far back to 2008 when perhaps a more relevant reference point could be used to more fairly reflect recent changes in the sector i.e. the college merger programme from 2012 onwards.”

A comparison of the draft and final reports confirms some changes were made on the reference points.

On student numbers, the draft noted: “In 2007/08, 374,447 students were studying at incorporated colleges; by 2015/16, the number had reduced to 220,680 (41 per cent).”

The 41 per cent decrease was not included in the final report and Audit Scotland focused on the FTE figure being at its lowest level since 2006/07. The FTE fall was much lower over the long-term than the drop in headcount.

The draft also included a table which showed total student numbers slumping from by around 150,000 between 2007/08 and 2015/16.

However, in the final report, the table started in 2011/12, which presented a less dramatic fall in the overall numbers.

In the “key messages” section of the draft, Audit Scotland concluded: “The number of college students has continued to fall and is at its lowest level since 2008.”

However, the final report stated: “Student numbers decreased slightly in 2015/16 and FTE is at its lowest since 2006/07.”

HeraldScotland:

Image: Audit Scotland's draft report

HeraldScotland:

Image: the watchdog's final report

Labour MSP Iain Gray said: “There are two issues: the damage of SNP cuts to young people, and the disgraceful way the government is trying to cover up any independent report that highlights those cuts. The culture of this government putting pressure on independent experts is unacceptable and harming transparency and good governance in Scotland. There is a clear pattern: attack the experts.”

An Audit Scotland spokeswoman said: “The key messages of our report and the news release issued to the media clearly state that the student population of Scotland’s colleges is at its lowest since 2006-07 when measured by full-time equivalent.

“As with all our reports, any revisions before publication are as a result of factual inaccuracies or evidence-based decisions by the audit team. This process did not alter our independent conclusion that that the Scottish Government’s national learning activity target will be harder for colleges to meet in future as a result of demographic changes and changes in school leaver destinations.”

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Audit Scotland is responsible for the content of its reports. The report was shared in advance to allow the Scottish government and Scottish Funding Council to provide comments or clarification on points of accuracy, in line with their usual processes.”