“Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget – and I’ll tell you what you value.”

It’s a phrase that US President Joe Biden has used repeatedly over the years, but it’s one worth bearing in mind when we consider the current state of colleges in Scotland.

Over the last few days my colleague Garrett Stell has explored the enormous financial challenges facing the further education sector. College Employers Scotland, which represents the institutions themselves, warns that years of budget cuts and consequent conflict with staff are threatening the sustainability, and therefore very survival, of the sector. From the other side, EIS-FELA – which represents lecturers – warned that even more disruption is likely if pay dispute (which has been rumbling on since Autumn 2022) is not resolved.

There is plenty of animosity on both sides of that divide, but there is also agreement on a key point: colleges aren’t being properly funded, and the Scottish Government is responsible.

If SNP and Greens pass the proposed budget for the coming year then colleges face serious, real-terms cuts to their funding that will, inevitably, do significant damage not just to the further education sector, but to society as a whole. Both parties will insist that they value further action – but their actions are telling a very different story.

Before joining The Herald I spent nine years teaching in a college in Glasgow, and I know from that experience just how vital those institutions are. They offer flexibility to young people struggling in schools, second chances for those who want to change their path in life, and support for those who are struggling to take a first step towards a better life.

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Make no mistake about it: all of that is currently at risk.

The government, true to form, wants to pass the buck on this, and has appointed a minister whose primary goals seems to be absolute anonymity while in receipt of a ministerial wage.

There was a time when education was supposed to be the Scottish Government’s top priority, but even then colleges never felt like part of the picture. Why? Because to the people who run Scotland, colleges are for other people’s children. As a consequence, the sector has been subjected to years of neglect and decline that would never have been tolerated if it served a largely middle-class clientele.

But even so, the government’s disinterest in colleges is an act of remarkable national self-harm. If we’re to have even the slightest chance of achieving net zero, or a just transition to a green economy, then colleges need to be front and centre – and funded appropriately.

If all that rhetoric about ‘recovery’ from Covid is to actually mean anything worthwhile, then further education and lifelong learning have to be properly valued.

Saving Scotland’s colleges must be a national priority. It starts with funding them properly.