Scotland's college sector is financially stable and achieving learning targets, whilst still adjusting to major changes to the way it operates. However, several issues remain outstanding if the full effects of government reforms are to be understood and addressed by the sector.
Audit Scotland's annual review of the sector has examined how substantial reforms, including mergers, regionalisation and Scottish Government policy ambitions, are affecting colleges' finances, governance, staff and students. It reports that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) have still not set out how they will measure and report the benefits of the reforms introduced in the last four years.
There have been significant changes to student participation. Government policy changes have led to a 14 per cent increase in under-25s on full-time courses in the last eight years. Student numbers overall have decreased - while full-time learning has increased, there has been a steep decline in part-time learning. The biggest reductions are among women and people aged over 25.
Attainment steadily increased between 2009-10 and 2013-14, then dropped in 2014-15. Student retention also fell after a period of increase. The sector has attributed this, in part, to widening access to colleges and the major changes experienced by the sector. At least 82 per cent of students who left in 2013-14 went on to a positive destination, and almost 90 per cent were satisfied with their college experience in 2015.
Staff numbers decreased by nine per cent between 2011-12 and 2013-14 and increased by five per cent in 2014-15. Staff feedback on the impact of mergers is mixed. Despite significant changes in the sector, colleges do not prepare organisation-wide workforce plans.
The sector's overall financial health is relatively stable, but its financial performance has deteriorated and four colleges face challenges. Colleges do not prepare long-term plans to help address future financial pressures, such as national bargaining, estate maintenance and student support.
Caroline Gardner, Auditor General for Scotland, said:
"Scotland's colleges are operating in a very different environment which has presented several challenges. While the sector has exceeded its learning targets and maintained relatively sound finances, managing the ongoing impact of reform alongside further change and financial pressures will be a complex and demanding task for colleges.
"The Scottish Government, the SFC and colleges need to work together to improve their understanding of the demand for college courses across the country and create long-term plans for how they will commit finances and staff to meet future need."