Vonnie Sandlan: Colleges are doing their best in difficult circumstances for full-timers, but part-time students are losing out

Vonnie Sandlan, President of NUS Scotland. Picture; contributed
Vonnie Sandlan, President of NUS Scotland. Picture; contributed
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Audit Scotland’s latest report reiterated what students across Edinburgh and Scotland already knew – colleges are delivering high quality outcomes for their students, at a time when they’re doing more for less.

It did, however, also present a number of challenges that we cannot shy away from. As the first area to have gone through regionalisation, Edinburgh is no stranger to those.

Across Edinburgh, there is good news – youth unemployment remains slightly below the national average and the number of school leavers reaching a positive destination is above it.

We should recognise the role of our colleges in achieving that, but while the number of students accessing full time courses is on the rise, that masks the reality of a near 50% fall in part-time students over the last eight years.

And what these numbers don’t tell you is the story behind those students – those who are more likely to be women, disabled or adult returners. Students who need and deserve opportunities, but often can’t commit to study full-time study. We must ensure that the necessary provision and places exist for colleges to continue providing education opportunities to a diverse range of students.

Increasing student places isn’t an end in itself, though. We need to make sure that the support is available to help students succeed. Successful completion for FE students – those who go onto achieve a qualification – is just 64 per cent. The remainder either fail to achieve full qualification or drop out altogether. And the unfair funding system they face must be seen to play a part in that.

College students face a discretionary bursary system, leaving any who arrive at college after the money’s run out to fend for themselves. FOI research by NUS Scotland last year showed that Edinburgh College was the only one in Scotland that stopped funding students early, before their course had even finished.

Underlying that was a £405,204 black hole between the amount of funding students were applying for and the budget available. Nationally, the figure was over £2.4m – money that students need, and deserve, but simply isn’t there.

In the build up to May’s elections, the SNP pledged a full review of the student support system – something we strongly welcomed.

This week’s report highlighted how urgently that review is needed, to ensure an overhaul of the underfunded, overstretched system that exists in FE and we’ll be keeping up our demand for improved and guaranteed support, ensuring that no student loses out because they find themselves at the back of a queue or the budget has run dry.

Vonnie Sandlan is president of NUS Scotland