EDUCATION Secretary John Swinney has been drawn into the row over Audit Scotland watering down a report into the college sector amid claims “undue pressure” was applied by the SNP Government.

Tory MSP Elizabeth Smith wrote to Swinney today after it emerged that the watchdog had deleted a reference to a 41% drop in college student headcount since 2007/08.

In June, a report by Audit Scotland concluded that the sector’s financial health had deteriorated, but was “relatively stable”.

However, the Herald yesterday revealed that an earlier draft, which had been sent to the Government, had included more damning statistics.

In May, in response to the draft, senior civil servant Paul Johnston questioned the watchdog’s decision to compare statistics as far back as 2008, and suggested 2012 as a more “relevant” reference point.

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

In the final version, Audit Scotland dumped the 41% reference and changed a table so that it started in 2011/12, rather than 2007.

In her letter to Swinney, Smith said: “It is my understanding that civil servants and Scottish Government ministers are in a position to ask Audit Scotland to make corrections to a report if it is clear that there are factual inaccuracies or errors.

“However, in the recent case of Audit Scotland's review of colleges, documents now reveal that undue pressure was brought to bear by a civil servant to alter the wording and tone of the report. This is quite a separate matter from making corrections to factual inaccuracies or errors."

She added: “In the last session of the Scottish Parliament there was a great deal of debate about probity in government and the transparency of information which is provided in the public interest. I hope you will agree therefore, that the pressure that was applied in this instance by a civil servant to tone down the scale of concern about the college sector was unacceptable and harmful to the image of government in Scotland.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Tavish Scott said:

"Auditors will be well used to the Scottish Government's 'factchecking' straying into attempts to whitewash and it is essential that they are wise to this threat.

“It is little wonder that the SNP Government is keen on discouraging scrutiny of the damage it has done to the college sector throughout the last decade.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats have consistently argued that £93 million in cuts to college budgets and the loss of 150,000 places have devastated further education. They have fallen particularly heavily on mature students, women and others more likely to study part time.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Audit Scotland is responsible for the content of its reports. As they have acknowledged, 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.”