VOCATIONAL EDUCATION has emerged as a key topic in the election manifestos published by the political parties last week.
They acknowledged the importance of further education for Scotland's economy, particularly in plugging skills gaps and tackling the problem of young people not in education, employment or training. The parties largely echo the election messages published for the first time by the Association of Scotland's Colleges in its manifesto last month.
The ASC wants to see college participation rates double from one in 10 of the working population to one in five by 2012. It believes colleges have a key role to play in supporting young people at risk of ending up in the Neet group.
For Labour, lifelong learning is a pivotal part of its education policy. A new education bill would compel 16 and 17-year-olds to stay on in education, unless in skills training or full-time volunteering, which could potentially increase the number of students in FE colleges.
Labour promised to expand the further and higher education sectors, and provide more cash for college buildings and a review of financial support for part-time students as the first step to increasing part-time and distance learning.
The manifesto says: "Labour has acted to raise the status of further education, and will never regard colleges as an afterthought in education policy."
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats call for closer links between schools and colleges, and they have both set a target of 50,000 modern apprenticeships by 2011. But the latter positioned its further education plans in the enterprise and economy section of its manifesto, rather than with education.
The Liberal Democrats promise: more cash for FE to help address "capacity issues and transport costs"; to roll out Skills for Work programmes across Scotland; and to set up "business incubators" in schools and colleges which would expose potential Neet youngsters to the influence of entrepreneurs and business people.
Careers Scotland and Learn-direct Scotland would merge, under a Liberal Democrat administration. The party also supports the call from Universities Scotland to increase investment in universities by an extra pound;168m.
Under the Conservatives, colleges would have a key role in encouraging the study of science and technical subjects; and a "root and branch" review of tertiary education funding would be instigated. The party also promised more autonomy for colleges and universities.
For the SNP, access is key. Its manifesto calls for a return to free education and aims at increasing international student numbers in Scotland.
The Nationalists would also review the position of part-time and postgraduate students; and provide an additional pound;10 million for cutting-edge research.
Like the SNP, the Green party acknowledges FE's role in strengthening the economy. The Greens call for greater financial support for FE students, and international students would also be encouraged with cheaper visas.
The Scottish Socialist Party would like to unify colleges into a co-operative network working together under democratic control, and to remove the requirement for 50 per cent of college boards to come from the business community.
NO SPANNER IN HIS WORK
Connor MacDonald was a little lost after leaving school. Despite gaining Highers in chemistry and English and an Intermediate 2 in physics, he eschewed further education in favour of job-hunting. But a job with a career path eluded him until he came across Glasgow University's modern apprenticeship scheme, underlining the often forgotten role colleges and universities play as major employers as well as seats of learning.
After finishing fifth year at Hillhead High in Glasgow, he spent a year looking for a job but finally feels he may have discovered his calling in the university's transport depot, where he can train as a mechanic and earn at the same time. "I think this is the start of something - I definitely want to be in this trade," he said.
The 18-year-old is eight months into a three-year apprenticeship that allows him to work in the depot four days a week, and spend Fridays at a training depot at Eurocentral, where he learns skills such as welding and mechanics.
The centre, near Motherwell, was opened last year by LAGTA (Lanarkshire Automobile Group Training Association), a private training provider for the automotive and logistics industries in Scotland.
After three years' training, Connor will spend another year working in the garage to become a fully-fledged mechanic. For him, the chance to work on a range of vehicles, from vans to cars and even lawnmowers, is the perfect way to get hands-on experience to complement his training.
Connor is just one of the modern apprentices at the university, where vocational training is as important for its staff as academic education is for its students.
Ian Black, the university's human resources director, described the programme as a key source of staff who might otherwise never have considered a career at the university.
"It gives us, and the modern apprentices, a structured development programme," he said. "It provides a framework to support succession planning, and helps ensure key university knowledge from more experienced staff is passed on."
Most of those undertaking apprenticeships at the university work in administration or IT, but others have also worked in labs, sport and recreation, catering and construction. Other departments are being encouraged to consider whether the scheme could help them.
"We are a major employer in the Glasgow area and the apprentice programme allows us to establish additional links with local schools and the community, improves our profile as a good employer, and helps us to be a good neighbour," said Mr Black.