College sector overview report 2022 to 2023: Recruiting learners

Planning and updating the curriculum

All colleges prioritised the needs of local, national and regional stakeholders to update and plan the curriculum offer. Curriculum teams worked well with industry and education partners to design programmes that meet the various needs of prospective learners. These included employed learners, carers and those with additional barriers or responsibilities.

Most colleges adapted their curriculum offer to accommodate demand from school-age young people to attend vocational programmes.

The number of learners applying for full-time programmes has decreased while the number applying for part-time study has increased. Most colleges responded well to this shift and worked quickly to adapt programmes to design and provide more short, part-time provision.

However, in some colleges, this was still a work in progress. Teaching departments had not yet adapted their programmes sufficiently. As a result, some programmes did not meet learner needs well enough. This contributed to learners withdrawing from their courses.

Promotion of provision

Colleges have worked hard to ensure that promotion of provision is targeted, accessible and effective in reaching prospective learners. This includes engaging more closely with schools and community partners to highlight and explain the range of learning options and progression pathways.

Most colleges improved and extended their use of social media to better target specific groups, including school-age young people and employed adults.

Teaching departments used labour market information (LMI) and regional skills data to identify local career pathways. They communicated these to potential learners, parents and carers.

In the last year, colleges recruited more learners from deprived backgrounds, care-experienced learners, learners with a disability and learners from ethnic minorities. However, retention and attainment for these learner groups declined overall in 2021 to 2022.

Supporting prospective learners from enquiry to enrolment

All colleges took into account the effect of the pandemic on new and potential learners. They recognised that many applicants, particularly school leavers, were underconfident about learning in a new environment and took action to alleviate anxieties. This included hosting helpful sessions for applicants to meet staff, learn about the range of support available and find out more about the content of programmes to help them make informed choices.

Many curriculum teams engaged frequently with successful applicants before they started their programmes. This ongoing communication helped to build positive relationships between learners and staff and helped teaching and support teams to address any issues in advance of programmes starting.

Some colleges offered short online courses to help new learners to develop their digital literacy skills. A few used artificial intelligence to provide translation services for learners whose first language is not English, which helped them to engage with the digital content of their programmes confidently. However, a number of colleges had not gathered sufficient information about learner digital skill levels to be able to offer them support before they start their programmes.

Staff ensured that application and recruitment processes encouraged learners to disclose any additional support requirements. Departments such as admissions, finance and pastoral support worked well with teaching departments to put support in place at the start of programmes to ease transition.

However, some colleges did not receive the information from secondary schools that they needed to identify and implement support for individual young people. This made starting college challenging and stressful for some school-age learners.

Many colleges did not have arrangements in place to follow up applicants who had not proceeded with their application or who had only partially submitted their application. Staff therefore did not know why these prospective learners had not completed the application process.

Supporting learners to access the right programmes

Most colleges used selection approaches that helped them place learners on programmes that aligned to their needs and aspirations. From their initial application, colleges gave learners the flexibility to transfer their application to a more appropriate level or type of programme.

Teaching staff expressed concerns that not all learners had the literacy, numeracy or digital skills they needed to effectively access their programmes. This, coupled with the fall in learner success rates, underscores the need for colleges to examine their approaches to recruitment and selection. It is crucial to ensure that learners are supported effectively to access programmes that are aligned to their abilities and skills.

The number of applications to full-time programmes at both FE and higher education (HE) levels have declined across most subject areas. This is partly due to a decrease in the number of young people in the Scottish population and due to an increase in the number of school leavers proceeding directly to university. This decline in numbers has meant that some colleges have stopped some programmes that were no longer financially viable. The range of provision on offer for learners has therefore reduced.

Arrangements for improving recruitment

Almost all colleges had strengthened collaboration between curriculum and support teams to improve recruitment approaches and support equity of access to provision for all learners. The improvements included adjustments to recruitment materials to barriers for applicants declaring a disability, those experiencing financial hardship or those whose first language is not English.

Some colleges used application analysis and other information such as data from Skills Development Scotland (SDS) on progression from school to post-school provision to examine recruitment patterns and understand the reasons for partial applications. However, a number of colleges did not understand the reasons for the decline in applications enough to inform future planning.