Scotland politics

Scotland's colleges face challenges after shake-up

Hands raised in classroom Image copyright Thinkstock

Scotland's colleges have been through a huge and sometimes controversial shake-up.

They were told to focus their efforts on full-time courses which led to official qualifications.

But budgets have fallen and jobs have gone while the total number of people doing college courses fell dramatically.

Some claim older students are losing out because of the new focus.

The biggest part of the shake-up has seen colleges merge with each other.

The thinking is that there should be one single college - usually spread between different sites - in each region of Scotland.

The mergers mean there are now 20 separate so-called "super colleges" across Scotland - in 2011 there were 37.

Inevitably this has meant some tough practical decisions as different institutions are brought together.

Nationally, more than 1,300 staff have gone - not all the redundancies have been voluntary.

In real terms, direct government funding fell by £53m between 2011 and 2014.

Sometimes the shake-up in administration has proved difficult.

Focus on full-time

In each area, one regional board helps co-ordinate the relationships between colleges and schools, universities and employers' groups. The board covering Glasgow has been hit by several resignations recently, including that of its chairman, former first minister Henry McLeish.

Individual institutions have sometimes found themselves facing criticism and industrial action.

But what has all this meant for students across Scotland?

Colleges now focus primarily - but not exclusively - on full-time courses for 16 to 24-year-olds.

According to the Scottish Funding Council, the number of places for students fell from 375,000 in 2008 to 240,000 in 2013.

The main reason was the focus on full-time courses.

Image copyright Thinkstock

However, the most recent figures also show a small drop in the number of students when expressed as a full-time equivalent.

Supporters of the changes argue that young people have not lost out.

The Scottish government promises a place in education or training for every 16 to 19-year-old who does not have a job.

Indeed, the number of so-called teenage "Neets" - youngsters who are not in education or training - is at its lowest level since before the recession. In 2013 there were 29,000 - down from 33,000 the year before.

It is argued that many of those who are now "Neets" may have faced particular challenges - for instance they may have dropped out of education or had a difficult upbringing.

However, critics point out that part-time places and courses were often vital to older people who wanted to learn: for instance mothers wanting to return to the workforce or people wanting to do a course while they held down a job.

Others argue many of the places which have gone were simply "hobby courses" of little direct academic or vocational value.

The signs are that part-time places are still being cut. Last week it was revealed that Fife College would have 3,500 fewer opportunities to study part-time next year.

'Tough decisions'

What challenges remain?

Money remains the biggest single concern. More tough decisions are expected.

A recent report from the public spending watchdog Audit Scotland argued that colleges had yet to demonstrate how the mergers were actually benefiting students rather than just leading to financial savings.

Colleges do not get all their money from the government - about a quarter comes from other sources like employers - but the rules they have to work within mean they cannot build up cash reserves. Any money which isn't spent by a set date has to be handed back.

Colleges also face practical challenges making the most of their newly-focused role, which includes working more closely with schools and universities.

For instance, more teenagers now get the chance to start college courses without leaving school, and a growing number of college courses have direct links with university courses.

This means someone who gains an HND at a college might be able to go straight into the third year of a related university course.

Another concern is simply about maintaining the quality of the student experience in the face of tight budgets.

The dramatic changes to colleges - both in their role and structure - represent one of the most significant shifts in Scottish education recently.

Big change always brings challenges.

Quite aside from the practical challenges, the question of whether the changes have actually led to better outcomes for learners and better value for money for the taxpayer are important ones for debate.

Expect to hear more between now and the Scottish election next May.

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