We must protect college students from the cost of living crisis

- By Shona Struthers, Chief Executive, Colleges Scotland

▏ Students studying at college in Scotland have done incredible things over the past two years. Hundreds of thousands of people have gained qualificat­ions and skills, studying through lockdowns, isolation and the challenges of managing family and work, while striving to achieve. The graduates leaving college at the end of this academic year will step into labour markets in fintech, social care, constructi­on, and hospitalit­y to name a few places where college graduates make the dierence, and bring their green skills to an economy which needs them.

But the cost of living crisis which is coming hard on the heels of a public health crisis poses a real risk to the ability of students to get the very most they can from their college experience – a cost of learning crisis in the making. Poverty makes it harder to learn and harder to succeed. Poverty isn’t confined to the baskets of help colleges are able to give – digital poverty, food poverty, period poverty. The unpleasant world of rising prices for energy, housing, fuel, and food will impact our students.

Around a third of Scotland’s college students come from the most challenged socio-economic communitie­s. A recent report on poverty in college and university students from the National Union of Students Scotland found that 60% of students worry or stress about their finances “frequently” or “all the time”, that a third of students have considered dropping out due to financial di‡culties, and that an alarming 69% said worrying about their finances impacts negatively on their mental health.

And that’s one of the reasons that the recent budget settlement, which sets a £51.9m cut to Scotland’s colleges, has the potential to have a devastatin­g impact on people who most need the boost from education and training to help them move out of poverty. Instead of unlocking the untapped potential of so many Scots, there is a very real opportunit­y cost that colleges won’t be able to deliver the scaold of support we oer, including services like mental health counsellin­g.

To maximise any recovery, we cannot as a country allow large sections of our communitie­s – simply because of socio-economic concerns - to miss out on learning opportunit­ies which could eventually benefit the students themselves, employers, local communitie­s and the wider economy. It’s been said that health is wealth. The same is partly true the other way around – wealth is health. Time and again it’s been shown that people in employment generally enjoy better mental and physical health. So, the benefits of gaining skills and finding routes to the workplace also result in generation­al savings within health and social care. Investment in skills provision through colleges is a strong investment choice in so many ways.

Scotland’s colleges already engage heavily with employers and within communitie­s to ensure that no-one misses out on transforma­tional learning opportunit­ies. An explosion in the cost of living and funding restrictio­ns cannot be allowed to close the opportunit­y pathways oered by the sector.

Financial support for students is a hugely pressing issue for colleges, and should be for Scottish Government too. Colleges need the stable and sustainabl­e investment which allows them to oer not just education and training, but also the support services which can support learning and achievemen­t.

Together we can ensure no-one is left behind and that our Covid legacy is a tangible skills-led recovery rather than a generation facing the potential of being locked in a poverty cycle.

For further informatio­n, please contact: collegessc­otland.ac.uk @Collegessc­ot

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