Multi-college regions within Scotland's main cities are likely to bear the brunt of efficiency savings up to 6 per cent next year, the education secretary's strategic guidance letter to the Scottish Funding Council has revealed.
Michael Russell's letter, published last week, states the funding council will have to deliver FE savings of pound;18 million in 2013-14, and a total of pound;33 million by 2014-15.
While no region should have to achieve savings of more than 6 per cent, the letter stresses that not all regions should face the same level of cut - the size of the region and its urban, semi-urban or rural status should be factored into the decision.
John Spencer, convener of the principals' convention of Scotland's Colleges, said the different approach to urban and rural colleges was based on a realisation that the capacity to make savings through mergers, efficiencies of scale and other factors varied across the sector.
But principals of urban multi-college regions like Glasgow fear this means they will face the maximum cut of 6 per cent next year on top of two years of unprecedented cuts to their SFC funding.
The guidance letter also dashed hopes of new funding being made available to the sector. The Scottish Parliament's education committee had been told there might be an additional pound;24 million delivered through Skills Development Scotland.
But Mr Russell's guidance makes clear he is "arranging for pound;24 million to be transferred from (the SFC's) FE funding line to SDS" for a new employability fund, rather than additional money being found.
The fund will "significantly simplify the landscape and improve outcomes relating to pre-employment support for those who need provision of this type", the education secretary states.
It will also help to achieve the government's student numbers target, he adds. The pound;24 million is expected to fund courses similar to this year's new college learning programme - short courses combining work placements and employability skills - despite criticism from within the sector that these are not comparable to full-time SFC-funded places.
Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, commented: "The funding council's guidance letter confirms plans to protect places, at least as measured by total activity, but we need further detail on many of the plans outlined in it. For example, the new pound;24 million employability fund is pretty unclear just now.
"The guidance letter is also a missed opportunity as it appears to provide no new money to colleges to reduce the Scottish government's proposed pound;34.6 million cut to their budgets."