It has been a tough two years for the Scottish college sector.
Finance Minister John Swinney last month promised an extra £17 million for the sector, to be spent on students, but colleges warned teaching budgets are set to fall by a further £6m.
No wonder, then, that there is growing frustration in colleges over what is felt to be a double standard in the way funding is allocated to colleges and to universities to cover the cost of a similar level of teaching.
Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) and Higher National Certificates (HNCs) bestowed by colleges are regarded as being equivalent to the first year or two of teaching on an undergraduate university course: the evidence is that many universities accept students with such qualifications straight into the latter years of a degree course.
Yet further education colleges receive much less per student per year for providing HNC and HND courses than universities do per year for teaching each an undergraduate on a degree course – £535 less. If colleges were paid the same as universities for providing what is a similar level of tuition, they would receive millions more in funding.
What a difference that could make. The Scottish college sector has lost an estimated 1300 staff in the last year alone. Youth unemployment is worryingly high and there is strong demand for college places. The extra funding would help protect an important route to achieving higher education qualifications for young people, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds. While young people from affluent suburbs may pass through their school years with the expectation of carrying seamlessly on to university, it is the college sector that provides higher education opportunities to youngsters in many deprived communities. As John Henderson, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, puts it: "Both sectors provide quality higher education courses that support our students to achieving their full potential."
What's more, not only are HNCs and HNDs an end in themselves for students, and one highly valued by employers, but they are also a route into university for some students, some of whom might not otherwise consider university. Increasing the funding colleges receive for providing HNC and HND tuition could help ensure more students in future are able to take this path. If widening university access is the aim, then such a move makes sense as part of the strategy.
Nobody can be under any illusions about the difficult task ministers face in allocating increasingly scarce resources, yet educating and skilling the current generation of under-25s will be crucial to Scotland's future prosperity.
The case for ironing out this anomaly in funding between colleges and universities is therefore a strong one and doing so would not only serve the interests of students but the interests of fairness.
We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis. If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules, which are available here.
Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.