The number of Higher courses attempted by Scottish college students has plummeted since 2010, the Herald can reveal.

Analysis of data from the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) has revealed that entries for Higher courses have fallen by almost 75%, while level 5 and level 4 courses have also seen declines of 57% and 67% respectively.

The president of the National Union of Students Scotland described the “dramatic drop” as “disturbing but sadly unsurprising.”

In 2010 there were a total of 12,725 Higher entries from Scotland’s colleges, but that figure has fallen in every year since. The largest falls took place in 2012, when more than 1600 places were lost, and 2019, when entries fell by more than 1500.

Last year, there were just 3275 Higher entries from Scotland’s colleges.

The number of entries for National 5 (previously Intermediate 2) courses in colleges has also fallen sharply, from 5614 in 2010 to just 2410 in 2023. SQA data shows that the largest drop happened in 2019 when more than 900 places were lost, although numbers actually increased slightly between 2022 and 2023.

READ MORE: Four Scottish colleges are facing 'significant cashflow issues'

The reduction in National 4 (previously Intermediate 1) entries has been proportionately even more severe. In 2010 there were 1045 entries from colleges, but by 2023 this had fallen to just 350. Entries at this level actually increased significantly in 2017, jumping from 944 to 1335, but by 2021 had fallen back to just 905. Remarkably, the number of National 4 entries was more than halved between 2022 and 2023, falling from 835 to just 350.

At this level, the largest declines were seen in English, Maths and English for Speakers of Other Languages qualifications, which between them accounted for 280 of the 485 courses lost in a single year.

Scotland’s college sector has seen significant change and controversy over the period in question. Between 2010 and 2014 the total number of colleges was reduced through a series of mergers – for example, City of Glasgow College was formed when Central College, Glasgow College of Nautical Studies and the Glasgow Metropolitan College were brought together as a single organisation. This process significantly reduced the number of separate colleges in Scotland.

Colleges across the country have also faced serious financial challenges in recent years, with a recent Audit Scotland report highlighting that risks to the financial sustainability of the sector have increased due to a real-terms funding cut of 8.5% from the Scottish Government.

READ MORE: Union and employers look to government for better college funding

NUS Scotland President, Ellie Gomersall, said: “It is disturbing but sadly unsurprising to see such a dramatic drop in students entering these college courses.

 “Years of neglect and real terms cuts to college funding, which have also resulted in cuts to teaching staff, mean that students - and disproportionately those from Scotland’s poorest communities - are paying the price.

“To make things even worse, the Scottish Government's recent draft budget proposes cash terms cuts to further education – a disastrous move which demonstrates they are ignoring the increasingly acute crisis in Scotland’s colleges.

“Colleges are a lifeline for many in our most disadvantaged communities and are key to the Scottish Government's stated aims of tackling poverty and closing the attainment gap.

“Despite this, colleges and students have been continually undervalued and underfunded. If the government is serious about its goals, it must properly invest in our future and heed NUS Scotland’s calls to Stop the Cuts to our education.”

Shona Struthers, Chief Executive of Colleges Scotland said: “Over the last 14 years, patterns of learning have changed hugely with the buoyant labour market, competition from universities, and changing demographics, all altering the qualifications people gain at college.

“The number of students enrolling on colleges courses has been steadily increasing over the last few years with a vast array of qualifications on offer and numerous ways to learn including online, hybrid, and in-person, which students can choose to take up either full-time or part-time.”

However, an EIS spokesperson argued that the “massive drop in National Qualification entries from colleges must be set in the context of over a decade of drastic cuts to FE funding.”

She added: "This has impacted staffing levels and the job security of lecturers which in turn has  impacted learning opportunities for students.  Fewer resources has led to a narrowing of courses available - particularly NQs, which attract less funding than some other FE qualifications - and to higher drop-out rates, especially among the most disadvantaged students. 

"The Hayward Report into qualifications reform and the Withers review of post-school education each highlighted the necessity of qualification pathways tailored to learners' needs, including apprenticeships and  a wide range of accredited qualifications. The EIS supports such a diversity,  but this must include NQs which continue to be highly valued by employers, learning establishments and students -including those who may have missed out at school.

"It is clear, however, that the Scottish Government's recent declaration of intent to slash the FE budget by £58.7 million will have a devastating impact on colleges' ability to provide students with the range of qualifications they need."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We expect colleges to deliver the most appropriate learner offer throughout life, including through upskilling and reskilling, whether full-time, part-time or a tailored mix, taking account of the diverse needs of learners.

“Colleges respond flexibly to the skills demands of the region and communities they serve by tailoring their offer in line with the economic needs of their regions, and through working closely with employers.

“Overall, recent statistics show that the number of students enrolling in college from S4 to S6 has increased by 47% since 2012-13.”