COLLEGES in Scotland need change to ensure more students graduate and the sector is financially stable in the long term, Scotland’s Auditor General has said.

A new report by Audit Scotland found the sector responded well to the challenges of Covid-19, including the shift to online learning during the pandemic, with extra funding contributing to a better-than-expected end of year operating position for the sector in 2020-21.

However, the watchdog also found that colleges’ finances are forecast to deteriorate in the coming years, with college sector funding for the upcoming academic year falling – down 5% to £696 million compared to 2021-22.

In inflationary real terms, this is a fall of 9% to £654 million, the report found.

And the proportion of students withdrawing from their courses has increased to 27.7% compared to the 20.8% in the previous year, with socially disadvantaged and vulnerable students more likely to withdraw from their courses.

Now Audit Scotland has urged the Scottish Government to work with the Scottish Funding Council to prepare for upcoming changes in the sector.

Stephen Boyle, Auditor General for Scotland, said: “The challenging financial situation facing colleges will make it difficult for the sector to balance the delivery of high-quality courses and Scottish Government priorities.

“Changes are needed to ensure the sector is financially sustainable in the long term and more students successfully complete their courses.

“Colleges need support to plan for those changes, and the Scottish Government needs to work with the SFC to put its plan into action at the earliest opportunity.”

Education Minister Jamie Hepburn, said: “We welcome Audit Scotland’s report and will consider its recommendations carefully.

“The Scottish Government is investing nearly £2bn in Scotland’s colleges and universities in 2022/23.

“We will continue to work with the Scottish Funding Council, and our colleges, to ensure funding continues to enable them to deliver high-quality education and training.

“We know some students’ learning was inevitably disrupted as a result of Covid-19.

“However, more than 90% of those who were unable to complete their studies in 2019-20 due to the pandemic have returned to college by 2021-22.”