THE Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, calls it the "march of the makers": a much-needed rise in the number of British engineers, plumbers, builders and manufacturers; men and women with the skills needed to build and maintain a solid base for economic recovery.
One of the reasons the UK ended up in recession in the first place was the country's manufacturing base being allowed to atrophy in the face of an over-reliance on the financial services sector. When the recovery does come, three words will be stamped on it: Made in Britain.
However, this economic re-balancing will not be helped by the current crisis in Scotland's colleges. Budgets have been cut, staff have been laid off, and in The Herald today it is revealed that 10,000 students are now on college waiting lists unable to find a place. These young men and women are needed for the economic recovery yet are locked out of the education system. Many will go back to school for another year but many will join the end of a youth unemployment line that is already shockingly long; among 16-24 year olds, joblessness is now edging close to 25%.
In principle, the Scottish Government recognises that further education is vital to recovery, but its actions seem to betray a prejudice in favour of universities over colleges, with college budgets being cut at the same time as those for universities are being protected. This may be because universities have organised an effective publicity campaign against any reduction in their budgets based on the fear that Scottish universities might fall behind their English counterparts, but the fact that cuts to universities are politically difficult must not be allowed to make colleges a soft target.
Colleges do have to face some reductions and much of the work being done on merging some courses, administration and non-teaching staff is sensible, but the deep cuts in teaching grants – 10% in the last two years with more planned for the next two – significantly threaten the good and vital work of the colleges.
As Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Education Institute of Scotland, puts it: further education plays a vital role in society and colleges can equip the workforce with the types of skills needed to work the country out of the economic downturn. The other danger of cutting college budgets in favour of universities is that it is students from lower-income families who will be disproportionately affected.
The Scottish Government denies the college sector is being singled out and says it is a champion of further education. It has also repeatedly promised to provide a training or education place for every 16 to 19-year-old in the country. However, it now has to support these claims by taking another look at the scale of the cuts to college funding in the draft budget.
Colleges may not have the prestige and status of the ancient universities, but they provide students with the practical skills they need to get a job. They could also help us all climb out of the economic doldrums.
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