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College cuts spark warning over widening access for students

Professor John McKendrick at Glasgow Caledonian University
Professor McKendrick says colleges are directly linked to the fairer access agenda

The man tasked with championing an increase in university students from Scotland's most deprived areas says "things really have to change".

Prof John McKendrick was appointed as Scotland's commissioner on fair access to higher education a year ago.

He said the Scottish government was not on track to meet its targets for widening access.

And he fears college funding cuts could deny some students the "spingboard" they need to get to university.

The government said "clear progress" had been made in recent years towards meeting its targets.

It wants students from the 20% most deprived areas to represent 20% of entrants to higher education by 2030.

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth has recommitted to an interim target of 18% by 2026.

However, a recent report said progress had "stalled" at about 16.5%.

Prof McKendrick, of Glasgow Caledonian University, said he was worried that cuts to college funding could further hinder progress.

Colleges are facing cuts of 4.7% in 2024/25, a real terms reduction of 8%, according to spending watchdog Audit Scotland.

This comes after an 8.5% real-terms cut from 2021 to 2023.

'Realise their potential'

Prof McKendrick acknowledged the effort the government had made to maintain the numbers of students from the most deprived areas entering university over the past three years.

He said colleges were important to the fair access agenda, allowing people to realise their potential or have a gateway to a university.

And he expressed concerns that colleges had already announced cuts to the number of places available in the 2024/25 academic year.

"There is a risk of courses being withdrawn, and there is obviously some courses that have already been withdrawn, notice has been given of that, so there's less range of opportunity for young people in the area," he said.

"I think we all understand the importance of a college education.

"It provides opportunities to young people and adults, returning adults as well, that might not otherwise have the opportunity to realise their potential."

Joanna Campbell
Joanna Campbell says colleges across Scotland are facing the same dilemma

At Dumfries and Galloway college, which trains and educates 7,000 students per year, the principal has described the upcoming cuts as "devastating" to the local economy and students from deprived areas.

Principal Joanna Campbell said: "For those students who wish to progress on to either higher education and can't get there, or need to train in a skill that allows them to go out and seek employment, we cannot provide the same volume of opportunities.

"And that is absolutely devastating for not just this regional economy, but actually, every college in Scotland will be facing the same dilemma."

As rural areas struggle to hold onto the younger generation, who tend to migrate to the central belt to study and often don't return to their home town, building enough affordable homes and providing local jobs are key targets to retaining young talent.

Ms Campbell and her staff were trying to meet the need for more skilled tradesmen in the area, while dealing with budgetary restraints.

She said: "We've really majored in a number of areas that are particularly significant to our regional economy to allow it to grow.

"We're seeing, particularly in construction and engineering, over-demand for those subject areas.

"And of course, if our budget remains the same, or is reduced, then it means that we are not going to be able to provide skills in those sectors, which are hugely important to our regional economy."

Mitchell Hammond, bricklayer student at Dumfries and Galloway College
Mitchell Hammond is studying bricklaying at Dumfries and Galloway College

When Dumfries and Galloway opened its application for the upcoming academic year, the construction course was quickly over-prescribed.

The college will now need to reduce the number of students it accepts to meet a £1m cut to its budget come April.

Mitchell Hammond, 19, has completed three years of his four-year bricklaying apprenticeship while attending the college for a fortnight every month.

If he could not attend a course locally, he would have to make a two-hour journey to Ayr.

He said the course was "very important" to his future, adding: "It'll set me up for life."

A spokesperson for the Scottish government said: "Clear progress has been made in recent years towards the target of 20% of students entering higher education from Scotland's most deprived backgrounds by 2030.

"While this is the most challenging budget to be delivered under devolution, the 24/25 budget still allocated nearly £2bn to universities and colleges - supporting their delivery of high quality education, training and research."