In evidence to Holyrood's inquiry into the effects on Scottish higher education of the possible introduction of top-up tuition fees in England, the Association of Scottish Colleges pointedly welcomed the increased spending on FE up to 2006 but added: "There are important issues as to whether the Scottish spending plans for these and later years may be inappropriately skewed by reaction to developments in England."
University chiefs have told the ongoing inquiry, by the enterprise and culture committee, that the Executive will have to pump an extra pound;100 million into the HE sector to avoid it being disadvantaged if English universities are allowed to charge up to pound;3,000 in extra tuition fees.
Scottish ministers have hitched their political credibility to a staunch refusal to introduce top-up fees north of the border. This means they may be forced to siphon resources from existing spending plans for lifelong learning to boost HE - hence college fears they could be targeted.
The ASC argues: "A key priority is to ensure that Scotland does not abandon or neglect its strategy for lifelong learning in relation to the many people whose education and training is not at HE degree level."
The colleges never cease to point out that higher national diploma and certificate courses are the largest single route of access to HE in Scotland, in contrast with England. The latest figures show that more than 60 per cent of those entering HE courses in Scotland for the first time do so through an FE college.
The ASC acknowledges, however, that there may be other adverse effects on Scotland. "It is not impossible that colleges of further education in England will introduce top-up fees for high-demand, specialised courses such as those in music and video production, the performance arts and agriculture," its submission states.
This may lead to more students from England seeking places in Scotland to escape higher fees. The ASC accepts that the impact of such cross-border traffic on HN courses will not increase too sharply for the sector as a whole, although there could be an impact on individual colleges.
College chiefs say Scotland has a lot going for it in terms of levels of participation (largely boosted by HN courses in colleges), more favourable student finances and a longer tradition of access to universities and colleges.
But, the ASC states, progress could be hampered if the cap on full-time HE courses in colleges is not removed. This prevents colleges responding fully to the demands. There is also an "unsustainably low unit of resource available to support HE courses in FE colleges" (see panel).