AN 11th-hour bid to win cross- party support for the Scottish Budget failed after critics warned extra cash for colleges did not go far enough to reverse deep funding cuts faced by the further education sector.
John Swinney's finalised spending plans for the financial year starting in April were approved at Holyrood despite opposition from Labour, the Tories, LibDems and Greens.
Facing pleas from students, trade unions and the main opposition parties, the Finance Secretary found an additional £10 million for colleges next year, partially offsetting a planned £34.6m cut.
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He also pledged to mitigate further planned cuts by maintaining total funding at £522m for the following financial year, 2014/15, compared with a college budget this year of £546.4m.
However, the move was dismissed as disappointing by the National Union of Students, while STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said: "The reality is, despite this rise, college budgets are still under pressure and the education of our young people is still under threat."
The extra college cash came from unallocated funds.
Mr Swinney also used money released by cutting loans to Scottish Water to announce an extra £38m for housing, £10m for trunk road repairs, £2m for town centre regeneration and £1m for an entrepreneurship fund.
However, the last-minute pledges failed to satisfy opposition parties, which had called for more wide-reaching changes.
Labour's education spokesman Hugh Henry said: "Over the next two years, the college budget will be cut by £50m. The savage cuts under the SNP will continue to deny thousands of Scots the chance to train for a new job at a time of an unacceptable level of unemployment."
Tory spokeswoman Liz Smith said: "The SNP is totally isolated on the issue of college budgets. It is extraordinary they are trying to claim what is a cash- terms cut of £24m is a success."
Alison Johnstone, education spokeswoman for the Scottish Greens, said: "We won't break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage by limiting education opportunities."
NUS Scotland president Robin Parker said: "We were hoping for much more from this budget. We fear a cut of £24.6m could see damage to students and to colleges coming at the same time as colleges are merging, and huge structural change."
The main points of the £34 billion Budget – of which £28bn is at the Government's direct disposal – were unveiled last September. New measures for 2013/14 will include a £30m home insulation scheme, £15m to subsidise wages in a bid to help small firms take on 10,000 jobless young people, and a promise to accelerate the Government's school-building programme.
However, new initiatives amounted to less than 1% of the cash at Mr Swinney's disposal, sparking calls for more action to boost the sluggish economy.
But addressing MSPs yesterday, the Finance Secretary insisted: "Today's budget is a budget for the Scottish economy. We are meeting our commitments to the people of Scotland and investing every penny we can in sustainable economic growth."
John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, which represents the sector, welcomed the extra funding.
He said: "This additional funding will help to give colleges stability over the next two years while they work to successfully complete the reform process."