There are not many numbers I could quote from distant days in government but one has stuck in my mind because I was quite proud of it: £41 million. The reasons remain highly relevant.

Having become Scottish education minister prior to devolution, I made an early decision, to the horror of civil servants, that the further education sector would get every penny of increased support it was asking for: £41m, or almost double that in today’s money.

I had a pre-existing respect for the sector and deplored how it was treated. The money had to come from somewhere which meant a modest top-slice to universities. Even more horror. The principals harrumphed a little but I reckoned you could give them £41m and they would be back next day for more. To the colleges, it made a real difference.

It has been a long time since Scotland’s colleges got every penny they asked for or had their true worth valued. For all the lip service to “equality of esteem”, they have returned to being the poor relations of Scottish education while still relied on as the crucial provider of useful careers and second chances to hundreds of thousands of Scots.

For years, there has been an endless procession of cuts, forced mergers, redundancies and industrial disputes. The current one over pay has been dragging on since 2022 with no end in sight which is why lecturers will demonstrate again outside the Scottish Parliament today. Good luck to them. Basically, it is less about money than relative values.

In the midst of industrial action, the Scottish Government budget removed £26m which had been allocated to the sector and the latest response has been to allow colleges to “deem” staff to be on strike even if they aren’t so that their entire wages can be withheld - otherwise known as pouring petrol on flames.

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As the EIS commented drily, it also “seems to be at odds with a government that says that it supports Fair Work’ is opposed to Tory anti-trade union laws and has declared itself to be ‘centre-left’.” None of this is doing any good for students, who overwhelmingly support the action.

The whole approach to vocational education should be at the centre of serious General Election debate. A country that does not value or promote it is unlikely to be ready for industrial opportunity which, if the "just transition" rhetoric means anything, is exactly what is approaching at a rate of knots.

It's one thing to fling that phrase about as if it will happen by declaring it. In reality, one of the biggest questions is where the necessary skills are to be found if projects are to proceed at anything like the pace which is required.

Scotland and the rest of the UK will need tradespeople as much as graduates and apprentices as much as experienced hands. The college network is uniquely placed to meet these challenges with the great advantage of localism. Because they are rooted in communities, colleges are far more accessible for many than universities.

Even those of us who have no ideological objection to immigration become pained when told the answer lies in foreign workers. That may offer short-term solutions but is a lot less sustainable or transformational than investing on our own doorsteps in giving young people lifelong skills and mentoring.

The fixation of politicians and policy makers has been with university numbers, which ignores the fact that half of school leavers are unlikely to see the inside of such an establishment. Without genuine “equality of esteem” that imbalance, and the money which follows it, will persist. All this is devolved, so why can’t we take a fresh look and draw some conclusions?

If as much attention was paid to our colleges as to the mantra of “free university tuition”, we would live in a significantly different society. In each case, the guiding principle should be that no young person is deprived by economic circumstances from fulfilling educational or vocational potential. We are light years away from that happy state of affairs.

If the gross imbalance is ever to be redressed in a serious way, scarce resources have to be weighted courageously and without apology towards lower-income sectors of society, in education perhaps more than anything else since lifelong disadvantage is embedded in the earliest years and reinforced through teens.

It is difficult to imagine that the loss of 450 teaching posts in Glasgow will not exacerbate educational disadvantage, both absolute and relative. This is what happens when there is a complete absence of sustained, philosophical commitment on the part of government to addressing educational inequality as the key to society’s other ills.

Scotland and the rest of the UK will need tradespeople as much as graduateScotland and the rest of the UK will need tradespeople as much as graduate (Image: Getty)

The greatest hypocrisy in Scottish politics is that “universalism” is the enabler of equality, since that entirely disregards the inequality of need. Genuinely progressive alternatives would involve greatly increased support for youngsters who need it and also enhanced funding and status for vocational teaching and training.

These are debates which cannot be avoided for ever, particularly given the parlous state of Scottish university funding which is now more dependent on decisions taken in Beijing than Edinburgh.

Last year’s drop in foreign students cost Scotland’s universities £100m. Over the past decade, the Scottish Government payments to universities in lieu of tuition fees for Scottish students have reduced in value by 20 per cent or £1900 a head.

It’s a highly predictable mess which is completely irrelevant to the 50 per cent who don’t even get to the university starting line. They are the ones who inhabit the other, neglected half of the universe.

It is a subject on which, I freely admit, there is no monopoly of wisdom or interpretation but there is plenty expertise available. A genuinely independent inquiry into objectives, priorities and outcomes for Scotland’s education funding would be a good way forward.

One assured conclusion, I think, would be a far better deal for Scotland’s colleges, the communities that rely on them and the hundreds of thousands whose futures depend on them.

Brian Wilson is a former Labour Party politician. He was MP for Cunninghame North from 1987 until 2005 and served as a Minister of State from 1997 to 2003.