The Higher Education Statistics Agency recently published a report showing that the number of students enrolling in Scottish universities, and some colleges, had fallen by 2 per cent in 2007-08.
The number of enrolments in Scotland stood at 210,180 last year with a 2 per cent decrease in full-time enrolments and a 3 per cent decrease for part-time enrolments.
While the figures for Northern Ireland and Wales show similar declines, the number of enrolments in English higher education institutions has increased.
The government has been quick to blame the trend on the previous Labour government, which held power in Scotland from 1999-2007.
Speaking to Guardian, a spokesperson for the Scottish Government said: “The bulk of students covered by these figures applied to go to university under the previous administration, before the improved student support introduced by this administration and before the abolition of the graduate endowment fee.”
Claire Baker, Labour’s education spokesperson, has been criticised for “scoring an own-goal” after referring to the new figures as “a very worrying development indeed.”
A spokesperson for Claire Baker, speaking to Guardian, claimed the decrease in 2007-08 was the result of the first year of an SNP government.
He said: “The HESA stats show that for the first time in years the numbers of students at Scottish universities actually dropped. This is for 2007/08, the first year of the SNP Government and the first year of the abolition of the graduate endowment.”
The Scottish Government, however, have argued that although the figures are from the first year of its administration, Labour’s funding policies still existed to put off potential students.
In addition, a spokesperson has rejected the claims that numbers have not decreased in recent years.
He said: “It is incorrect to suggest that this is the first time that student participation rates have fallen.
“The age participation index, which estimates the proportion of Scots who will have experienced full-time HE by their 21st birthday, fell under the last administration from 47.1% in 2005-06 to 46.9% in 2006-07.”
President of the SRC, Gavin Lee, has expressed concerns as to the cause of the decline in enrolments.
He said: “The SRC would encourage the government to look into the reasons behind this trend. It's important in difficult financial times that no potential students are dissuaded from attending university for financial reasons."
Despite all this, the number of full-time undergraduates at Glasgow University has in fact increased from 14,980 in 2006 to 15,025 in 2007, and with the figures for 2008 still to be finalised, numbers are expected to rise further.