Scotland’s colleges are no longer a “soft touch” for swingeing spending cuts as they change to maximise their impact on local communities.
Outgoing Dundee and Angus College principal Grant Ritchie said a change in approach from the government was allowing the sector to adapt by re-introducing more courses for adults and harder-to-reach groups.
Audit Scotland warned more colleges were slipping further into the red in a report in June.
Colleges had previously operated “under a lot of people’s radar, politically”, Mr Ritchie said.
“I think colleges were a soft touch, a slightly easy target for government. But it is coming back, funding is improving, and this budget looks like it is better,” he said.
The principal, who recently announced his retirement after nearly 35 years with the further education institution, spoke after ministers confirmed an above-inflation increase of 3.6% for colleges in last week’s budget.
“In the early ’90s colleges were funded to grow. It was the days of lifelong learning, masses of part-time activity for adults. Colleges were absolutely thriving.
“That lasted until 2007 or 2008 when the financial crash hit and the government at the time took a lot of cuts from colleges.”
He said Dundee College, as it was then, lost £6m over two years, leading to 180 staff leaving and a curtailed curriculum.
Signs of a different culture, with more of a focus on lifelong learning, are returning, he said.
“The government have released us a bit on that complete concentration on 17 to 19 year old’s full time education.
“There is the opportunity now to bring it back but we need to do it slowly but surely.”
Mr Ritchie spoke days before the scheduled publication of the Scottish Government review into the economic impact of Scotland’s colleges.
The report, overseen by Edinburgh College principal Audrey Cumberford, is expected to confirm a refreshed role for the further education sector.
Mr Ritchie will leave Dundee and Angus College on a high in July after notable achievements including winning The Campbell Christie Public Service Reform Award for the college’s work to boost the local economy.
He said the sector would continue to fight its corner.
“One of the things we would challenge government on is where is it more important to put your resource?
“Put it back into colleges to bring people back into the labour market to work, or is it to continue to offer other things.
“If you have very tough decisions to make, do you need to offer 40 art history degrees across Scotland?”
He said despite fears over a lack of jobs in Dundee and Angus, opportunities do exist in the local labour market.
“Dundee City Council have done a really good job in making sure hotels that are opening are paying the living wage.
“There are hotel jobs, care jobs, jobs that people who have come from the EU have been doing – who will probably go back – and there are also other types of jobs.
“There is a chicken and egg thing here. Unless you have people coming through that are trainable and trained, they are not going to get the jobs.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said improving the life chances of children and young people through education continued to be the principal mission of this government.
“Colleges are offering everyone the opportunity to gain the skills they need for success.
“On Thursday, we announced a significant real term increase in investment in colleges that has been warmly welcomed by the sector itself,” she added.
College best at supporting care-experienced young people
Staff at Dundee and Angus College are leading the way in helping young people from a care background get the qualifications they need.
Dundee and Angus College is the most successful regional college in Scotland for helping care-experienced young people successfully complete their course, according to new figures.
The Scottish Funding Council statistics show D&A College has 469 care-experienced enrolments – 5.6%, with a national average of 3.1% – and 68% of these learners have successfully completed their course.
This is the best in Scotland, and above the national average for all students, the college says.
D&A college staff have guaranteed a place of study to all eligible care-experienced young people and adults who submit their applications by 31 March 2020.
The college also has a well-established We Care @ D&A group of students and staff who meet regularly to support each other and share experiences.
Simon Hewitt, vice principal for attainment, hailed the new figures.
He said: “The support and nurture provided by everyone at D&A coupled with these recent success rates are a real testament to the amazing work we are doing to help care-experienced students achieve their full potential.”