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FTEs up, but learning hours down in FE: what does it mean?

January 25, 2016

The annual Scottish FE college statistics came out recently, prompting the now also annual argument about the fall in in total numbers (headcount) in FE in Scotland versus the increase in FTEs (full-time equivalents).

In its Baseline Report (here), which goes into immense detail about all these figures, The Scottish Funding Council explains colleges were asked “to prioritise more substantive courses designed to improve students’ employment prospects and reduce the number of students enrolled on leisure programmes and very short (less than 10 hours) programmes of study”.

The Minister for Skills said (source linked here):

We have aligned the college offer with the needs of employers so that we are moving from college students along a track where we are delivering full-time courses that are actually aligned to employment and further education, instead of a myriad of short part-time courses.

Colleges are also aligning a lot more with the apprenticeship system.  So, there has been a big change but it has been deliberately to ensure that what is being offered in colleges is of very high quality. It will result in colleges either being able to continue with education in a full-time sense or move into employment in a far more sustainable way than some of the kinds of courses that were being offered before.

One person could be signing up to two or three different courses, counting two or three times in the figures, but actually not necessarily being in the kinds of courses that would result in real long-term benefits. [But note: the baseline report shows there has been a slight increase in multiple enrolments in the latest year.]

These numbers – and the ministerial language – deserved more than a day or two of political set-to.  Here’s some reasons why (the first two I’ve not seen covered: the last is far from new).

Learning hours are falling

More FTEs ought to mean – in simple terms – that there’s more learning being supported in total.

So a surprising figure buried in the statistics is a fall in the total “number of learning hours” over recent years.  These are defined as  the “hours of learning required to complete the course”. These hours totaled 81,032,840 in 2006-07, peaked at 84,048,520 in 2011-12, but by 2014-15 had fallen to 76,323,551 (Table B here).

There is some discussion of this at pp 24-25 here. Some swapping around between SFC and SDS is part of story  but this – evidently assumed important, as  it is described twice, at para 57 and 61 – appears to have been a one year, in-year effect only.   A drop between 2010-11 and 2011-12 was due to a rethink round school age children – but the large drop again in 2012-13 is not explained.  The overall impression from the description is that this fall is a real effect.

Working out the total hours of learning per FTE in 2006-07 and 2014-15 using the figures at Table B produces the odd result that in 2006-07 there was an average of 670 learning hours per FTE , which had fallen to 630 in 2014-15, implying that an FTE required 6% less learning hours. This doesn’t match anything elsewhere in the text and may turn out to be a daft calculation: but it’s not so at first sight. I’d at least like to understand why it’s misconceived, if it is.

Frustratingly, a later section promising information on learning hours by gender (p27-28) in its subtitle and opening paragraph does not actually include any information on that. But the same section does make it clear that there’s been a particular fall in enrolments by women.



Separate SFC statistics (the Performance Indicators) provide some pretty detailed information on retention.  It tends to be worse on longer courses, or put another way people are more likely to complete a short course in full –  no great surprise.  It would be interesting – but beyond the capacity of this site – to look at how far there’s any sign of a relationship between the move to longer courses and the retention data, which appears to have dipped a bit this year.

Table 11 provides figures for retention for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds on courses over 160 hours – but the document doesn’t seem to provide an all-student average retention for this particular set of courses with which to compare, which makes the figures of limited use.

“Substantive” courses

The language is very telling.  A substantive course appears to be one which as far as possible requires a significant commitment of time and is geared towards getting an accredited qualification.  If we were previously not supplying as many opportunities for such study as students wanted, then it’s hard to argue with providing more.

But at whose expense has this been done?

The characterisation of what’s been lost as insubstantial sounds like the death knell of a philosophy of lifelong learning and second chances.  Here are a couple of important groups of people who are now less well provided for, particularly in an era where local authority funding for adult education will be under massive pressure:

  • those who didn’t do so well at school and need to improve their skills, but are daunted by formal education and can only cope with small commitments, step by step,
  • those who cannot afford to give up much time or take on long commitments, because they have caring responsibilities, can’t afford to chuck in their job and/or have unpredictable home lives.

To me, that looks like a description of plenty of people, especially women, in their 30s, 40s and 50s, who weren’t well-served by the school system in the past.  The sort of short educational opportunities likeliest to work best for many of them are now officially “not substantive”.  The particularly large fall in female enrolments is evidence of that, as is that the hours of learning provided to those 25 or older have fallen from 27m in 2006-07 to 21m in the latest year. There is still access to learning provision (here’s Edinburgh College’s relevant brochure) but I can’t immediately see anything in these publications which shows how the scale of this sort of provision has changed. That’s a problem: the rhetoric encourages us to assume all the loss is the dreaded “leisure” (however defined), but it’s not possible to pin down from all this data the actual content of the provision that’s gone.


The educational philosophy at work here is not only aggressively employment focussed (nothing here about improving general well-being, especially for those beyond working age), it appears to be focussed almost entirely on preparation for employment for people in the mood for long-form, full-time courses, who are most likely to be younger.

Improving access to full-time FE and HE for young people to improve their employment prospects is a reasonable policy.  But the SG has got away remarkably lightly with dismissing the opportunities lost at the same time for other groups as insubstantial.  The lost courses are sometimes dismissed (with a somewhat ageist, sexist whiff) as flower-arranging. That’s lazy and underplays the multiple ways people need to be able to engage with learning over their lives and the personal, social and economic benefits of their doing so.  The SFC notes that  only 3% of “learning hours” now don’t lead to a recognised qualification (para 7). But in 2005-06 it was just 9%: FE colleges were never awash with non-accredited oasis and gypsophila.

Meanwhile, more people are being channeled onto courses which require more staying power –  that will work much better for some than others. And something worth explaining has happened in the total learning hours.

FE – previously a garden of  many flowers – appears to be becoming much more of a monoculture, designed to suit a rather narrower range of students than before. It fits increasingly into the “big school” idea of tertiary education with which the present Scottish Government seems most comfortable –  something visible in its student funding policies too.

And for those now largely shut out of the garden and provided with no other? Your needs are not “substantive”. Sorry.









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