To begin our special on the State of Scotland’s Colleges, education writer James McEnaney has compiled and analysed data from across the sector. Here he explores changing funding levels for colleges and students, the way in which further education institutions serve specific groups of learners, and the shifts in qualification levels over time.


In Scotland, colleges receive the overwhelming majority of their funding from the Scottish Government, although this money is actually distributed by an organisation called the Scottish Funding Council.

However, publicly-available documents and statistics make it difficult to compare funding levels over recent years. Different organisations have made different claims based on different views and interpretations of the data, leading to a lack of clarity around the financial state of Scotland’s colleges.

In order to address this issue, we asked the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) to provide comparable data on the actual funding received by colleges in each of the past ten academic years. The SFC was unable to provide a full decade of information, but did release figures going back to 2015-16.

This information, which has not been published before now, shows that colleges have suffered major cuts to their operating budgets.

Since 2021-22, when funding was boosted to deal with the impact of Covid, college budgets have faced clear cuts. By the end of 2024-25, annual funding levels will have dropped by more than £50m per year.

The picture is even worse when inflation, which began to rapidly increase in 2021, is taken into account. When the Bank of England’s inflation data is incorporated into the figures, we can see that colleges are actually facing a cumulative, three-year funding gap of almost £200m.

This shortfall – equivalent to around a third of the actual budget for the current financial year – helps to explain why colleges have pursued voluntary redundancy programmes, shuttered campuses, and been unable to resolve the long-running pay dispute currently disrupting the sector. Over the past three years, the combined college funding gap stands at nearly £500m.

A similar pattern is seen when analysing student support funding for colleges. This budget had remained relatively consistent in the years before the pandemic and, like overall funding, was boosted in response to the impact of Covid.

Although funding levels for 2024-25 remain higher than pre-pandemic equivalents, the failure to keep up with inflation during a cost of living crisis had already reduced the real-terms value of this support, and the most recent budget included a further cut of £12m.

As a result, the gap between the ‘core student support’ provided by the government, and the money that would have been needed to keep up with inflation since 2021-22, stands at more than £40m for the year 2024-25. The cumulative shortfall for the three-year period is £95m.


Clearly, student numbers are a key metric for understanding the state of Scotland’s college sector – but there are different ways in which this figure can be understood.

On the one hand, we can look at the raw number of individuals studying college courses in a given year, and doing so tells us how many different people were classed as ‘students’ at a particular time. By this measure, numbers are up since 2015-16 – the earliest date for which comparable funding data was available – having increased from 226,898 at that time to 248,907 in 2022-23.

Read more: Scotland's colleges are worth billions to the economy

An alternative method of assessing student levels is to count the number of individual ‘enrolments’ onto courses. As some students complete more than one course in a single academic year, this figure is always higher than the raw student number, so this one has also increased since 2015-16.

In both cases, however, the picture changes significantly if earlier data is included in the analysis – although student and enrolment numbers are higher now than they were ten years ago, they have both fallen by around one third since 2008-09, the first year after the SNP won control of the Scottish Government.

Another way to measure student numbers in colleges is to use the ‘Full Time Equivalent’ (FTE) figure. This method is often used in the context of employment levels, and can be a helpful way to understanding issues such as workload in that context, but is arguably less useful when trying to understand issues around access to college, especially given the fact that more than 80% of enrolments are for part-time courses.

Despite large drops in student and enrolment numbers between 2008-09 and 2015-16, the FTE figure for student numbers remained fairly consistent for most of this period. This reflects colleges shifting towards full-time courses and away from part-time learning. However, the latest data does shows that after years of stability there has been a decline in the FTE count for college students, with the figure having dropped by around 6.5% since 2008-09.

However, counting students and enrolments – FTE or otherwise – doesn’t give us the whole picture, and it is important to look at other areas of the data to get a more complete understanding of the state of Scotland’s colleges today.

Another important indicator for the health of the system is the success (or otherwise) of students from vulnerable groups, and official data does indeed allow us to track the proportion of ‘credits’ awarded by disability, ethnicity, care experience, and deprivation. This is an imperfect measure because different courses at different levels may reflect different credit numbers but, for context, a full-time further education course will typically consist of a total of 16 credits.

Over the past ten years, the percentage of college credits awarded to disabled, minority ethnic and care experienced students have all increased. More than a quarter of all credits are now awarded to disabled pupils, and almost ten percent go to those from minority ethnic backgrounds.

Credits awarded to students with experience of the care system now account for about seven percent of the total – that is a huge increase on the 2014-15 figures, but the increase is coming from an extraordinarily low base of just 0.3% at that time.

For all three groups, however, college provision appears to have markedly improved throughout the past decade.

Finally, we can also see that 16% of credits are awarded to students from the most deprived 10% of Scotland, a figure that has remained consistent over the past decade and shows that colleges continue to serve higher numbers of students from deprived backgrounds.

Taken together data reinforces a key strand of the story of Scotland’s colleges: providing opportunities for people who have often been let down by, or are regularly excluded from, the education system.

Information concerning college students from outwith Scotland is also available and highlights the changing circumstances facing students and institutions in recent years.

Since 2016-17, the number of European students in Scottish colleges has more than halved, falling from 505 to just 238 in 2021-22. The figure peaked at 769 in 2018-19.

Over the same period, however, the number of international students from outwith Europe has increased, climbing from 607 in 2016-17 to 759 in 2021-22.

By far the biggest change, however, has been in the number of students from the rest of the UK attending colleges in Scotland. In 2016-17, a total of 914 rUK students were studying at Scottish colleges, but by 2021-22 that number had almost doubled to just under 1800, suggesting that the country’s further education sector is increasingly attractive to students from elsewhere.


Alongside funding levels and student numbers, it is also important to understand the changes in the number of college courses available across the country.

Analysis of data from Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) statistical releases confirms that entries for almost all levels of National Qualifications (NQ) have fallen – in some cases extremely significantly – over the past ten years.

The most obvious decline is seen for entries to Higher courses, which stood at more than 10,000 in 2013-14 but had dropped by nearly 70% to just 3,275 by 2022-23 (NQ entry stats for 2023-24 are not yet available).

Entries for National 5 (or the Intermediate 2 course that it replaced) have been cut in half, falling from 4,807 in 2013-14 to 2,410 last year, while National 4/Int 1 saw an even larger proportional decline, slipping from 848 entries to just 350.

Skills for Work courses, which “focus on generic employability skills needed for the workplace” are also available as part of the NQ qualifications. Like Highers and Nationals, however, entry levels have declined sharply: there were 6,034 Skills for Work entries in 2013-14 but just 3,940 by 2022-23.

Of course, some may argue that these qualifications are not the main concern of colleges, and that entry levels for different courses are a more useful measure of the state of the sector. Unfortunately, the number of entries for National Certificate (NC), Higher National Certificate (HNC), Higher National Diploma (HND) and Scottish Vocational Qualifications (SVQ) have also fallen dramatically over the past ten years.

In 2013-14 there were 16,172 entries for college NC courses, and although this figure crept up over the subsequent two years, it has since plummeted to just 7265 entries in 2023-24 – a 56% decline.

HNC entries in 2013-14 were slightly higher than those for NC, with a total of 16,701 recorded, but a steep decline since 2020-21 means that in 2023-24 the number had fallen to just under 12,000 entries. This represents a 28% fall.

The number of HND courses has also fallen over the past decade. In 2013-14, a total of 13,269 entries were recorded for this level, but ten years later the figure stood at 7,706, meaning that HND entries have fallen by 42%

Unlike NC and HN courses, SVQs are workplace qualifications completed by individuals who are also doing their job at the same time. They do not have exams – instead they tend to be based on submissions such as portfolios or short reflective essays. The SQA advises that there are more than 500 SVQ courses available.

Although the decline in SVQ course entries has not been as severe as that seen for NC, HNC and HND courses, the 2023-24 figure of 8,893 is still more than 10% lower than the 10,259 entries recorded in 2013-14.

In addition to the courses already explored, colleges also offer a range of different ‘awards’ qualifications for students.

SQA Awards are described as “practice-based work qualifications for specific sectors”. They are available at SCQF levels 5 and 6 in fields such as British Sign Language, First Aid, Forestry, and the Principles and Practices of the Cremation Process. Ten years ago there were nearly 4,000 entries for such courses, but in the most recent figures that had fallen to just under 3,000.

The SQA also allows organisations to create ‘Customised Awards’ in order to support skills development, compliance with standards, and progression routes for individuals. It says that the customers for this include “charities and social enterprises, trade associations, colleges, training companies, local authorities and government departments.” Entries for Customised Awards fell from 1,009 in 2013-14 to a low of just 170 in 2017-18, but have since recovered to a level of 1,092 for 2023-24.

National Workplace awards are intended to support employment by assessing specific skills in working environments. They cover an extremely wide range of subject areas including the Award in Barista Skills, a Diploma in Maritime Studies, and an array of Foundation Apprenticeships. The vast majority of these courses are completed with private sector training providers, but some are also delivered by colleges. In 2013-14, college students were entered for 2,080 National Workplace courses, and the overall number peaked at 5,554 in 2019-20. For the current academic year, 2,874 entries for college students have been recorded.

Another qualification in this category is the Personal Development Award (PDA), which are typically for those already in work and looking to progress, but can also be appropriate for some people seeking employment. PDAs are also sometimes ‘embedded’ in HNC and HND qualifications. This is one of the few qualification types to have seen an increase in entry levels over the past decade, rising from 4,716 in 2013-14 to 6,142 in the current academic year.

After a decade of significant growth, National Progression Awards (NPA) are now the most popular course for college students as measured by annual entry levels. These qualifications, which cover areas as diverse as Musical Theatre, Applied Sciences, Customer Services and Leadership for the Racehorse Industry, can be used by schools but are “mainly used by colleges for short-study programmes, such as return-to-work courses.” In 2013-14 there were 7,777 NPA entries but that figure has now risen to 12,741.

Click here to view college entry data for all qualifications from 2013/14 - 2023/24