MINISTERS have delivered a "steady as you go" message to colleges and praised them for delivering on lifelong learning, wider access and employability.
In the annual letter of guidance to the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, Iain Gray, Lifelong Learning Minister, made clear he expected it to work closely with its higher education counterpart, and hinted that any assessment of student growth would have to take into account the overall requirements of both sectors.
Mr Gray said there would be some capacity for expansion in FE and HE although there were no specific targets. But he added: "This is a matter for further consideration as, too often in the past, expansion in funded places has not been based on a clear analysis of capacity and need.
"Between now and the next spending review in 2004, I expect the two funding councils to work closely with each other and the further and higher education sectors to provide robust advice to the Executive on the scale and type of further growth which will be in the best interests of Scotland and its students."
This clear steer that ministers are increasingly predisposed to regard HE and FE as one tertiary sector chimes with Mr Gray's positive initial response to the parliamentary lifelong learning inquiry report which recommended a single funding council. A full response from the Executive is expected early next month.
Mr Gray's letter to the council confirmed that there would be no money for growth in student numbers in 2003-04 which "may well create problems for colleges in managing demand". But he urged the funding council to help colleges manage competing demand for limited student places as well as balancing intakes to non-advanced and higher education.
Last year's Scottish spending review gave the FE funding council an increased budget rising from pound;420 million in the current year to pound;504 million by 2005-06. The figures represent a favourable 20 per cent hike for the colleges, most of which will kick in during the later part of the spending period, in contrast to the 15 per cent extra for higher education.
While Mr Gray has acknowledged the pressures on colleges, at least for the next couple of years, there is to be no backing away from Government priorities.
Mr Gray told the council: "I remain committed to widening access to further education but it is the nature of participation that we must now concentrate on by continuing to remove barriers and ensuring that social prejudice plays no part in deciding who benefits from further education."
He also urged the sector to learn from the success of colleges with a good track record in active community involvement and increased student participation.
The council will be expected to pay particular attention to disabled students, those from ethnic minority communities, asylum-seekers, people who need English as a second language and other groups such as travellers.