The second national report on the supply and demand for FE in Scotland, published by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, shows that Glasgow had the highest proportion of learners signing up for non-advanced courses - 37 per cent above the national average. The Highlands and Islands had the lowest, at 26 per cent below.
The report notes these significant variations and says there is evidence of "supply influencing demand". It states: "For example, in Lanarkshire there is evidence of low comparative levels of supply coinciding with low comparative levels of participation while, in other areas, demand appears to have been stimulated by additional supply, such as new campuses and provision at Kilwinning and Livingston."
The 132-page national report (plus appendices) is accompanied by 11 detailed area reports, amounting to what the funding council describes as "the most comprehensive data collection and analysis exercise on the issues of FE demand, need and supply since the formation of the SFEFC in 1999".
Roger McClure, the council's chief executive, commented: "This report shows that there is a growing demand for FE from learners and employers and that colleges are responding effectively in meeting those needs."
Employers were said to be satisfied with FE provision. A second report by ICM Research, issued at the same time and covering the UK, found that seven in 10 people agreed that their local college has a good reputation for both quality and range of courses.
Tom Kelly, chief executive of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said:
"This is an independent endorsement of the impressive and innovative work which is being undertaken by dedicated college staff throughout Scotland.
It is also a timely recognition of the vision and dynamism which have become the hallmarks of further education in Scotland."
Colleges are now "one step ahead of the hugely changing needs of Scotland," Mr Kelly says.
The funding council's report, researched by DTZ Pieda Consulting, found that "demand for FE is buoyant and is outstripping supply in some areas".
There may be "potential unmet latent demand" in parts of the country.
The report acknowledges, however, that buoyant demand may be hit by external factors such as the overall population decline and the projected fall in the number of 15-16 year olds by 1.1 per cent a year to 2012.
Numbers opting to take higher education courses in colleges may also be affected if more choose the university sector.
The study suggests these factors will be offset by the positive interest expressed in FE, employers' attitudes to the sector, employment growth, higher skills demanded in the private and public sectors, and post-14 links between colleges and schools.
The most recent data for 2002-03 showed a 4.6 per cent fall in college enrolments. But DTZ says this is not an indication of a fall-off in demand but a response by colleges to control intakes because of funding restrictions and the need to meet financial targets.
The report also warns that half of this fall in enrolments is accounted for by students on non-vocational courses which do not lead to a qualification.
"Significantly, this group is disproportionately more likely to have no or low qualifications (and) this change needs further research and careful monitoring if inclusion strategies are to be realised."
The report says colleges should set up an "applications to acceptances" database, modelled on the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) These latest findings will be the subject of intensive discussions with colleges and others at a series of seminars next month in Inverness, Glasgow and Dunfermline.
Laurence Howells, the council's director of learning, policy and strategy, says it will have to consider if the research points to the need to review funding allocations and priorities, and whether the right type of FE activity is being supported, particularly the balance between social inclusion and economic regeneration work.
"There may be a view that colleges should be driven by the needs of the economy rather than those of social inclusion," Mr Howells says. "On the other hand, there is an argument that, unless you tackle exclusion, you will never meet all the needs of the economy."
The DTZ report itself points out that, while its research was not concerned with funding, the results should inform reviews of funding. In particular, "whether provision should be driven predominantly by learner demand or, rather, driven by economic and social need".
At the moment, colleges generally are supporting 4.6 per cent more activity than they are being funded for, and in one case 24 per cent. This is not likely to be sustainable, DTZ says.
Tony Jakimciw, chairman of the ASC's principals' forum and principal of Dumfries and Galloway College, said: "The contribution of Scotland's colleges to our local economies and communities across Scotland has never been stronger than it is today."