THE SNP government has been accused of class bias against Scotland’s population of young, low-income college students.

The claim, made in today’s powerful Big Read here, which could be deeply damaging in the run-up to the General Election, is made by the head of Scotland’s leading leftwing think-tank The Jimmy Reid Foundation (JRF), Dave Watson. 

It came as the organisation gave the Herald on Sunday exclusive access to its latest report, a detailed investigation into the state of Scotland’s colleges.

The JRF found that Scottish government funding for the college sector has declined by 8.5% in “real terms between 2021/22 and 2023/24”.

It says that: “This year the revenue budget for colleges has been cut by £32.7m.” That’s a decline of 4.8%. The report adds that “college funding cuts … deny some students the springboard they need to get to university”.

Average expenditure per student in Scotland sees colleges come bottom. Preschool receives £9273; primary £5916; secondary £7657; university £7558; and colleges £5054.

Watson told the Herald on Sunday: “The report concludes that Scotland does not value the college sector. This needs to change.

“Colleges matter in Scotland’s economy because they generate a significant proportion of the nation's wealth and are crucial to the Just Transition to meet our climate change targets.

“Industries must upskill their existing workers, and need a new generation of workers with the necessary skills. Without adequately funded colleges, there is no viable pathway to net zero.

“The core problem is underfunding. College funding per student is only two-thirds of that allocated to schools and universities.

“We suspect that is largely because the policymakers went to universities, and their children go straight from schools to universities.

“Colleges have a high proportion of young and not-so-young adults from working-class backgrounds and communities left behind in other policy areas.”

The JRF report said that colleges “are treated as the poor relations of the education system, largely ignored by policy-makers. One reason may be that although a quarter of school leavers went into Scotland’s 24 colleges … this proportion increased to 35.6% from the most deprived areas”.

(Image: Stock image)

Colleges have suffered “significant staffing cuts and poor industrial relations have resulted in frequent periods of industrial action over the last decade”.

Colleges, the JRF investigation found, “make a substantial contribution to the Scottish economy. Every college graduate creates an additional £72,000 boost to productivity for the Scottish economy due to going to college.

“These graduates also help to support the equivalent of a further 203,000 full-time jobs in the Scottish economy over their 40-year working lives.

“However, college centralisation and funding cuts are undermining the contribution to the new skills Scotland needs.”

The JRF says “successive ministers responsible for Further Education have taken a hands-off approach to the sector”. 

There’s “reduced provision for students with Additional Support Needs” and “the loss of local provision”. This all causes an “impact on students from already disadvantaged communities”.

According to the JRF “the history of a decade of industrial disputes highlights the lack of trust within the sector between those who seek to manage it and those who work in it”. 

The JRF says the SNP government must end “the current arm’s length relationship” with colleges, and calls for the college sector to “return to a public service focus with collaboration, not competition, at the heart of its mission”.

The report says the JRF is “struck by the similarity to NHS Trusts before devolution, where a competition ethos undermined patient care and industrial relations”. The government should put “an end to expensive marketing strategies that seek to poach students from other colleges”.

Regionalisation and college mergers “have resulted in fewer courses and the loss of local provision”. The JRF says: “We need a new structure that puts the local back into college provision. Fanciful strategies that attract a handful of international students should not be the management focus.”

The JRF adds: “The lack of proper funding is at the core of all that has gone wrong with college provision. There has to be a sustained above-inflation increase in revenue funding to set a new baseline and a capital budget that at least starts to rebuild the estate. The aim should be equity of funding with other education tiers.”

Industrial relations “need a fresh start”. The JRF says “the employee voice … must be heard” in order to develop “an entirely new culture”.

The report adds that “college governance needs a complete overhaul. A public service ethos needs to be established, with strict management salaries, expenses rules and a new code of practice for college boards”.

Earlier this year, the Herald reported that Paul Little, principal of City of Glasgow College, earns close to £170,000 per year, with an annual remuneration of over £200,000. He has charged more than £100,000 in expenses over the last 10 years, including more than £13,000 at a private members club in London.

In 2023, it was revealed that City of Glasgow College spent close to £1million of public funds on PR, marketing, public affairs and events since 2018.

Pictured: City of Glasgow CollegePictured: City of Glasgow College (Image: Archive)

The JRF report says colleges have a “unique role … enabling access to higher education. Universities and colleges should not be incentivised to compete for students”.

An “urgent review” is needed for the provision of additional support needs in colleges, to ensure that “young people … with additional needs are both included and safe in society and have appropriate social and employment opportunities”.

The report went on: “Equality of opportunity must be provided for students across the country, regardless of geography.”

It said that the “discredited model of privatisation” at Shetland College must "be reversed with the college returned to its former status”.

The report also highlights the “broader concern that training and development in Scotland is reducing for young people, even compared with the rest of the UK”. 

Apprenticeships for 16-24 year-olds “have dropped by more than 5800 over the last decade … The number of skills shortage vacancies has more than doubled in Scotland in five years”.

A Scottish government spokesperson said: “Colleges across Scotland make an immeasurable contribution to our communities, our economy and our nation as a whole and clearly have parity of esteem with other post-school education routes, including university and apprenticeships.

“While the 2024-25 Budget is the most challenging to be delivered under devolution, we have protected as far as possible investment in the college sector, with more than £750million to support their delivery of high-quality education and training.

“Ensuring our institutions are on a sustainable trajectory is at the heart of our considerations to reform the post-school system, so that the significant investment we are making delivers the best outcomes for learners, the economy and society.”

It is understood that the Scottish Funding Council will continue to support colleges in developing their own mitigating strategies to minimise any negative impacts on short, medium and long-term sustainability.