"We are placing learning at the heart of Scotland's future economic agenda," Wendy Alexander, Lifelong Learning Minister, told MSPs. "We have to do more, but we have made a start on modern apprenticeships, on the new deal, on access to higher education, on the future skills unit, on the Scottish University for Industry, all of which were unanticipated only four short years ago."
But Kenny MacAskill, the SNP's spokesman, said the foundations had to be laid in schools. "Within schools, we have fewer youngsters undertaking and obtaining qualifications in technology," Mr MacAskill said.
"That is matched by a reduction in the number of places at university for teachers of that subject and, indeed, by the absence of rooms to teach it in some private finance initiative schools."
Annabel Goldie, for the Tories, took issue with Ms Alexander's inclusion of new deal training as a skills provider as "frankly nonsense". Only 10 per cent of new deal participants complete their training courses and leave with a qualification, she said.
The Government's policies were dismissed or making education "a mere adjunct" of economics by Irene McGugan of the SNP. This "devalues and strait-jackets education to no good purpose," she said and added:
"Education should be about drawing out thinking skills and about encouraging pupils to think critically and creatively at school and, later, in the workplace."
Cathy Peattie, Labour, who is vice-convener of the Parliament's education committee, joined Mr MacAskill in highlighting the problems posed by the decline in technological subjects. "We are not talking only about graduates," she said. "The folk who use the tools and wear the overalls in industry are equally important."
The importance of higher education research was underlined by the SNP's Richard Lochhead. He said he had been "stunned" two years ago to learn that Robert Gordon University received less research money than the philosophy department at Edinburgh University.
The comments in the debate about encouraging more young people to take up science and engineering jobs led Ms Alexander to promise a "manufacturing image initiative" which would lead to initiatives in every school next year.
The intention will be to give people an insight into the reality of modern engineering and correct any misapprehensions they may have.