As colleges face an unprecedented squeeze on their budgets, the Scottish Government is being urged by some of its leading advisers to switch money from further and higher education into workplace learning.
Damien Yeates, the chief executive of Skills Development Scotland, told a conference on youth unemployment last week: "If I go into HE full-time, I attract an annual subsidy of between pound;11,000 and pound;19,000, depending on whether I do arts or medicine.
"If I get my FE or HE through the workplace, I would attract a virtually zero subsidy. We need to strike a new balance. `Earn while you learn' is a compelling proposition."
He said the scope of FE and HE to take in ever more students had probably been "exhausted". In 1976, employment accounted for 74 per cent of 18- year-olds, compared with 17 per cent who were in full-time FE or HE; in 2009, those in jobs had dropped dramatically to 40 per cent, while 45 per cent were in colleges and universities.
But the most compelling comments at the conference, staged by Holyrood Events in Edinburgh, were reserved for what Willy Roe, who represents Scotland on the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, called "the inadequacies of the connections between the world of school and the world of work". It was a major theme in the review of vocational education he led on behalf of the Scottish Government.
Mr Roe believed that persuading employers to take on paid interns was a large part of the answer in bridging the gap. His contact with employers during the review convinced him that many of them were up for this and that there were therefore "tens of thousands of internship opportunities, including graduate placements".
OUT OF TEMPO
The head of training at Arnold Clark Automobiles told the conference "the difference in tempo between the world of school and the world of work was too much for too many".
David Scott said that, while his company had a very active modern apprenticeship programme, many school leavers who passed through his hands had a "bonkers expectancy culture - a near-zero understanding of negative consequences and an inability to make decisions based on anything other than `I want'".
He noted that a normal week in the workplace constituted 40-hours plus, during which "you eat your sandwiches on the run and expect to work extra at weekends." In schools, a normal week was 25 hours with lunch and afternoon breaks and weekends and summer off.
Mr Scott insisted that pupils needed to broaden their experiences while at school. He suggested that all 14-18-year olds - 314,000 of them - should be put through the Duke of Edinburgh's Award. At pound;86 per head, the cost would be pound;27million - less than 1 per cent of Scotland's economic output.