Student numbers fall as Scottish colleges adjust to shake-up
More work is needed to gauge the demand for college courses, according to a spending watchdog.
Audit Scotland said there had been a "steep decline" in the number of part-time students following a shake-up which included mergers and funding changes.
It said it was unclear what impact the decline had on those students, in particular women and older people.
The Scottish government said it would consider the report's findings.
Colleges have been told by the government to prioritise substantive full-time courses, which prepare students for employment, over leisure programmes and very short courses.
The report found:
- The number of under-25s on full-time courses increased by 14% over the last eight years
- There has been a fall in overall student numbers - the biggest falls were among women and the over 25s
- Part-time student numbers fell by 48% between 2007-08 and 2014-15
- Staff numbers fell by 9% between 2011-2012, and 2013-14, but increased by 5% the following year
- The number of students who completed all or part of their course (retention rates) increased year-on-year from 59% to 66% between 2009-10 and 2013-14. It dropped to 64% in 2014-15
- Attainment dropped in 2014-15, after steadily increasing since 2009-10
- The sector's financial health is "relatively stable" but four colleges face "challenges"
The annual review of colleges examined how reforms affected their finances, governance, staff and students.
Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland told BBC Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme: "The number of part-time students has fallen significantly over the last few years. That's in line with the government's commitment to increase the number of younger students and full-time students who are getting qualifications that will help them into employment.
"But we don't fully understand the impact on people who had previously been able to go to college on a part-time basis - that's particularly women and older students."
She said it was currently impossible to say what the impact had been, but added: "It is possible that those people are finding their way into employment. It's possible that they're not doing that. But given the importance of Scotland's economy at the moment, with the new financial powers coming along, and the first minister's commitment to inclusion, it's really important the government and the funding council have that picture."
Several colleges merged as part of the reforms and in many parts of Scotland there is now a single college based on a number of sites.
But the changes - and how they were put into practice - were controversial, and in March college lecturers went on strike over pay.
Shirley-Anne Somerville, the minister for further and higher education, said the government had invested more than £550m in estates and maintained in excess of 116,000 full-time equivalent college places in 2007.
"Refocusing our resources on courses that will best prepare people to get a job was one of the major objectives of our reform programme," she added.
"This report helpfully highlights what is working well and we will consider its findings, including the more challenging conclusions as we continue to deliver the job-focused learning that enables more of our young people to get the qualifications they need to get on in life," she said.
Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said the union was particularly concerned about the drop in older students.
And he said the mergers process had been a "very stressful time" for students and staff.
"The EIS has repeatedly warned that the mergers process has sometimes been misused to provide cover for unnecessary cuts to staffing, courses and student places and this is reflected in today's report which identifies significant cuts in each of these areas," he said.
Labour's education spokesman Iain Gray said the report showed the "complete and utter mess" the Scottish government had made of college re-organisation
Liz Smith, the Scottish Conservatives' shadow secretary for education, said it raised serious concerns.
"In particular, it makes clear that the Scottish government's severe cuts to college budgets are having a detrimental impact on the ability of colleges to maintain employee numbers, on staff morale, and on their ability to support students to develop the skills they most need in the workplace," she said.
Colleges Scotland said it was encouraged by finding that 90% of students surveyed in 2015 were satisfied with their experience.
Chief Executive Shona Struthers said: "Colleges Scotland acknowledges that there are areas where further work is required. Activity is progressing and we are continuing to work with the Scottish government, SFC and other key stakeholders.
She added: "The Audit Scotland report, whilst emphasising the overall stability of the sector's financial health, is clear that the college sector is showing signs that it is facing significant financial pressures.
"Colleges Scotland is committed to work with the Scottish government to ensure that colleges, as public bodies, are as financially stable and sustainable as possible".