Scotland's auditor general told the
Public Audit Committee
maintaining student numbers in Scottish colleges would be "challenging".
Caroline Gardner was giving evidence to MSPs on Audit Scotland's report on Scotland's colleges entitled
"Scotland's colleges - Current finances, future challenges"
on 24 October 2012.
The report found that as part of overall public sector spending reductions, Scottish government revenue grant support to colleges is likely to fall from £545 million in 2011/12 to £471 million in 2014/15.
Ms Gardner told MSPs that the funding settlement for Scotland's colleges was "tight" and she said the demands of that funding settlement may mean a "real pinch" for mature learners as the college sector focuses on the Scottish government's policy of a training or college place for every 16 to 19 year old.
There was much talk in committee of the planned restructuring of the college sector, in particular the spectre of mergers.
Ms Gardner pointed out that currently there was no official account of the possible costs and benefits of the restructuring and outcome agreements but said she had been given assurances by the Scottish government that they would bring forward the necessary detail.
Ministers have announced structural reforms of the sector, including the creation of 13 college regions.
These are expected to result in the number of colleges in Scotland falling from 37 to no more than 23.
Committee Convener Labour's Iain Gray questioned whether student numbers in Scotland, currently standing at 300,000 could be sustained in these tight financial times.
The Auditor General responded that it would be "challenging" and told MSPs maintaining or growing student numbers would be "a difficult circle to square".
The committee also took evidence from Ronnie Nicol and Graeme Greenhill from Audit Scotland.