As Political parties set out their stalls in the run-up to the general election, the focus will inevitably fall on the economy, foreign policy and the health service. Further education, it's fair to say, rarely gets a look-in.
But this year's party conference season has heralded a marked change, particularly as politicians look to apprenticeships to improve vocational routes for young people and to keep youth unemployment down.
One expert described the situation as an "arms race" between the main parties, with each competing to have the best apprenticeship policy.
As the debate heats up, FE colleges are warning that their "vital role" must not be overlooked if the politicians are to meet their ambitious targets. Despite much rhetoric on apprenticeships, none of the parties has explicitly stated how colleges will be involved.
Colleges have also warned that more must be done to strengthen relationships with industry if apprenticeship-boosting policies are to succeed.
Labour leader Ed Miliband kicked off the debate last week by listing apprenticeships as one of his "national goals" for the UK. A Labour government would raise the number of school-leavers becoming apprentices to match the number going to university by 2025, he claimed.
This week, prime minister David Cameron announced that a future Conservative government would increase the number of apprenticeships by 50 per cent to 3 million during the next Parliament. The expansion of the programme would be funded by benefit cuts, he said.
The Liberal Democrats, whose conference begins tomorrow, have also pledged to increase the number of apprenticeships and improve their quality, give more grants to employers to take on apprentices and expand the number of degree-equivalent Higher Apprenticeships.
Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College and president of the Association of Colleges, told TES that with more than 300,000 apprenticeships currently linked to FE colleges, the sector would have a "fundamental role" to play in future plans.
"We are pleased that apprenticeships are high on the political agenda," he said. "The UK has struggled to get technical and vocational education right and we continue to have a capacity problem.
"I firmly believe employers should be at the centre of apprenticeships but colleges have a particular role to play with small and medium-sized businesses, who don't have the time or resources to manage these programmes themselves.
"They need that partnership with colleges. I sometimes think that's understated. Colleges have a long tradition in providing technical and vocational education, and are ideally placed to deliver training as part of the apprenticeships. They are going to have to be central to any reform."
However, Mr Atkins added that to improve the status, profile and quality of apprenticeships, more money would have to be put into the FE sector. "If Ed Miliband's target is to be met, we are going to need another 100,000 higher-level apprentices every year," he said. "We won't generate that at those levels without additional funding."
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group of colleges, said colleges would always have a role to play in delivering workplace training and development, but that asking for more money was "pointless". She added: "The issue for colleges is the way they reform their business models and change and design their curriculum, and establish themselves as genuine apprenticeship providers and supporters."
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the number of higher apprenticeships had grown rapidly in recent years, from 5,700 in 2011-12 to 13,000 in 2012-13. The department has also committed pound;40 million to support an additional 20,000 starts by the end of this academic year.
The government has recently also joined forces with top employers to launch a new advertising campaign calling on young people to "Get In, Go Far" by choosing an apprenticeship.
David Harbourne, policy director of the Edge Foundation, which champions technical and vocational learning, said apprenticeships were finally getting the recognition they needed.
"It's almost like an arms race, with each party trying to outdo the other in how far they can go with them," he said. "I think it's a very good thing because for a long time they were playing second fiddle."
He added: "Along with other training providers, colleges are essential to the future of apprenticeships."
`Apprenticeships are a viable option'
The popularity of apprenticeships is growing at The Manchester College, with 2,300 learners currently enrolled on such programmes compared with 1,100 at the same time last year.
John Thornhill, chief executive of The Manchester College Group, says the organisation has recently moved apprenticeship delivery into a separate unit. "We wanted to better focus our expertise in some of the skills generation sectors we need to be growing for the city, such as aerospace and advanced manufacturing," he says.
The college even has a new schools liaison officer to promote apprenticeships. "That has helped us develop our offer," Mr Thornhill says. "It is also helping young people understand the different pathways available to them. As a result, more are now seeing apprenticeships as a viable option after school."
He welcomes the focus on work-based learning but says politicians still underestimate the strong relationships between local employers and colleges with good vocational offers. "Any new apprenticeship model should evolve through existing providers," he says.