Scottish colleges have come out fighting and demanded an end to what they see as their "marginalised" position.
In a frequently hard-hitting paper, designed to form the basis of a further education manifesto for the upcoming Holyrood election, they say colleges should have the main responsibility for developing the skills of the workforce, rather than the "wasteful intermediation" of the present system.
"Intermediate functions and bodies are not only problematic in terms of cost," the paper states. "They tend to lengthen lines of communication and obstruct the line of sight between planning and action. They also shift attention away from the primary focus of learning, which rests on skills, knowledge and the needs of learners."
This is a thinly-veiled call for colleges to take over the work of agencies such as Skills Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise and the Sector Skills Councils.
The paper, drawn up by Scotland's Colleges, proposes that the colleges, rather than Skills Development Scotland, should become responsible for careers guidance (as should schools and the universities for their sectors). The colleges believe they should also fund and manage modern apprenticeships.
The document goes on to call for colleges to be given a leading role in a Government-led "strategic forum for skills," which would meet quarterly.
The paper declares: "This would help to reduce bureaucracy and to address the fact that colleges, the main agents in skills and knowledge to new entrants and existing members of the Scottish workforce, have a limited, direct voice in and direct links to the development of national policy and priorities. That is a situation which cannot continue if Scotland is to fulfil its ambition for a high-skill, high-output economy."
The mantra of college leaders is that, with 43 colleges and other centres stretching from Lerwick to Stranraer, they are best placed to create "a national service delivered locally".
The key role Scotland's Colleges envisages for a national skills forum is also a warning shot across the bows of the Scottish Funding Council. The council has come in for recurring, if low-level, criticism for "meddling" in the curriculum and straying beyond its remit as a funding council. Principals reiterate that position, but they do stress that they want the body to continue as the distributor of government funding for the sector.
The college paper also tilts at the funding of higher education, which is offered in colleges as well as the universities. This is a long-running sore with principals, who point out that the FE sector is much more cost- effective: a full-time HE student in college costs pound;3,117 on average compared with pound;5,708 for a full-time HE student at university.
Just over 20 per cent of HE students currently study in Scottish colleges, and the paper wants to see that share increase. It proposes colleges should run all courses up to level 7 of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework; this means that Higher National Certificate courses would no longer be offered in universities, which colleges believe would be better value for the taxpayer.
The paper calls for funding to follow the course rather than the institution.
It believes these changes will contribute to a more "joined-up" skills system while also securing "optimum value for the public pound."
In turn, the colleges pledge to make themselves more efficient and embrace new working practices, in the face of an unprecedented 10 per cent reduction in their teaching grant in the next 2011-12 academic year.
They say they would look at opening their doors for more weeks of the year, allowing qualifications to be obtained over shorter periods of time and moving to "fewer discrete institutions" providing there is a sound evidence base for mergers.
At a time of recession, the college message to Holyrood politicians is the unequivocal one of "your country needs us".