16% drop in Northern Ireland further education college numbers
There has been a 16% drop in the number of students going to further education colleges in Northern Ireland over the past three years.
In 2013/14, 99,293 students went to further education colleges, but that fell to 82,818 in 2015/16.
The figures have been released by the Department for the Economy (DfE).
There was a 15% drop in the number of enrolments at FE colleges over the same period, as some students can be enrolled on more than one course.
According to the department, there were 180,825 enrolments at FE colleges in 2013/14, but by 2015/16 that figure had fallen to 153,817.
One of the six FE colleges, Belfast Metropolitan College (BMC), had a particularly steep decline in its enrolment in just one year.
The number of enrolments at BMC alone fell from 36,685 in 2014/15 to 28,514 in 2015/16 - a decline of 22.3%.
When approached to explain why this was the case, they declined to comment.
NUS-USI President Fergal McFerran expressed alarm at the "staggering drop" and called on the executive to make a "significant increase in the funding allocation for tertiary education and student financial support in the new budget".
The college with the lowest rate of decline was South Eastern Regional College where enrolments fell by 8.3% - from 35,832 in 2013/14 to 32,858 in 2015/16.
FE colleges provide a range of courses for a range of learners including:
- Qualifications to enable entry into a range of occupations
- Higher education courses like foundation degrees and HNDs
- In-service training for some professions
- Recreation, leisure and hobby courses
- Essential skills courses
Sources working in the FE sector told the BBC that the decline in enrolments could be down to a range of factors, including budget constraints leading to cuts to courses and staff.
In 2015/16 over 400 staff in the FE sector were offered voluntary redundancy.
Some also said that leisure, recreational and hobby courses - or non-regulated courses - had been reduced in recent years, leading to a drop in enrolments from life-long learners.
The DfE figures indicate that there has been a consequent drop in the number of enrolments to non-regulated courses over the three years.
In 2013/14 there were around 39,000 enrolments to recreational courses compared to around 24,500 in 2015/16.
This was a result of DfE's 'Further Education Means Business' strategy, which aimed to reduce the number of recreational courses to encourage more "economically focused provision".
The chief executive of Colleges NI, Gerry Campbell, said that further education was vital for the future of Northern Ireland's economy.
"While there has been a decline in relation to residential and leisure type courses, in many ways over the past two or three years there has been an increasing focus from the colleges and FE sector as a whole to engage more on the provision of economically relevant courses," he said.
In a statement the Department of the Economy confirmed that the FE colleges budget had been reduced by £10m in 2015/16.
However, they said that the enrolment statistics were "largely positive" and showed that an increasing proportion of students were leaving further education with a qualification, meeting the needs of the economy.