The Scottish Government's decade-long obsession with universities and free tuition, which is by far Scotland’s most middle-class benefit, often overlooks the vital role colleges play in our education system and working-class communities.

Unison represents more than 2,000 support staff including librarians, IT specialists, administrators, cleaners, canteen workers and estate management staff, in 24 colleges across Scotland.

These staff are involved in the sector's longest running industrial dispute since devolution. We have seen strikes across the country in a dispute over pay and job security, which has been running for nearly two years. The truth is that this is part of a cycle of poor industrial relations for over a decade.

College staff are the backbone of a sector that provides training and education for more than 200,000 students each year. They support subjects which drive our public services and economy like health and social care, engineering, hair and beauty, hospitality, information technology, languages, construction, catering, creative industries and much else.

Colleges take in a quarter of our young people after they leave school and help them towards positive destinations. They are where working-class kids go to find a better future; where women return to education to lift themselves and their children from poverty and where industry gets its skilled workforce. These are the very people who do not have the same lobbying might as the families who enjoy Scotland’s university education.

A quarter of students doing higher education courses in colleges are from the most deprived areas of Scotland, yet half go on to university after graduating from college. Over a third of school leavers from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds - and half of those who leave school in S4 - go to college.

The Herald: Scotland's commissioner on fair access to higher education, Professor John McKendrickScotland's commissioner on fair access to higher education, Professor John McKendrick (Image: Peter Devlin)

However you cut the statistics, colleges play a vital role in getting working-class kids onto positive destinations. I have not even touched the role further education plays in those returning to education later in life.

Our colleges should be the jewel in our education system; they are the vital link between local communities and local economies. However, The Herald’s recent article "What happened when we investigated the college sector?" (March 24) which uncovered "serious and legitimate concerns" about "financial sustainability of institutions and principals’ handling of the ongoing industrial dispute" was a tragic read, but unsurprising to those working in the sector.

Where we do agree with college employers is that there just isn’t enough money in the system. The Scottish Government’s own commissioner on fair access to higher education, Professor John McKendrick, agrees. He recently warned that college funding cuts could deny many students the springboard they need to get to university and that the Government was not on track to meet its targets for widening access.

Colleges are facing a real-terms cut of 8% this year, according to Audit Scotland. This comes after an 8.5% real-terms cut in the two years prior. And colleges have already announced cuts to the number of places available in the 2024/25 academic year. This is at a time when charities are warning that poverty is back to record highs.

And still, college staff are waiting for a pay rise that was due in September 2022. The sticking point is they want a guarantee that their pay increase will not be at the expense of mandatory redundancies and more cuts to students' college courses.

Mandatory redundancies are not idle threats. Further education staff will tell you they are the only parts of the public sector without a Scottish Government guarantee of "no compulsory redundancies".

Last year Scotland’s largest college - City of Glasgow College - backtracked on a threat to make 100 staff redundant to cope with a £6 million budget cut. These redundancies would have gone ahead had unions not stood their ground for an agreement.

And even now unions are standing their ground with Moray College, which is also threatening a round of job cuts. College staff tell us that they feel college principals operate in a different world to them. Some - and I stress some - get paid more than the First Minister of Scotland. Regular media stories of excess in the boardroom and large public relations bills do not help industrial relations, or public relations for that matter.

Read more: What happened when we investigated the college sector?

Read more: Ross Greer MSP requests review of City of Glasgow College expenses

Staff say that some chief executives no longer see a future for colleges in serving ordinary communities and small towns. To bring in funds college boards have visions of increasing fees from overseas students to fill funding gaps. Not unlike our higher education funding models.

We have been calling for the Scottish Government to step in, in the way it has previously for NHS staff, junior doctors and local government. The sector is in trouble because it is seen as the poor relation in our education system - probably because it does serve your poorer relations.

In short, we can end this national dispute if college staff can get a fair pay rise with no threats of redundancies. But we have so much more to do.

We need to get government, employers, staff and students around the table to build a new vision for an old idea of life-long learning, accessible to all and build a further education sector that delivers for local communities and industry. We need a review of finances and governance, staff need a new deal with fair pay without threats of jobs cuts, the sector needs investment not cuts, and students need their courses and services protected.

The Scottish Government has high ideals for fair work, and to end poverty and build an economy based on high skilled jobs. If ordinary working-class people are to be included, then colleges have to be central to this vision. Government will not achieve any targets to tackle deprivation - and particularly on community wealth building - while cutting back on college courses which are overwhelmingly attended by students from poorer backgrounds.

We need to get industrial relations back on track and build a further education sector which we can rightly be proud. As the Scottish Government knows, my door is always open.

Lilian Macer is Unison's Scottish Secretary