Assiduous lobbying of ministers by the further education sector paid off handsomely in the past week when Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop announced a Pounds 28.1 million cash injection for colleges to help them deal with the effects of the recession.
Although the money is spread over two years and Pounds 12m of the total is for improving college buildings and facilities, it means that Pounds 16m will be available to create thousands of additional student places at a time when colleges are under serious pressure from people wishing to retrain or upskill.
Ministers hope the extra funding, which comes on top of a string of other increases for FE, will avoid the political embarrassment which would arise if colleges had to turn away students or put them on lengthy waiting lists because they could not afford to enrol them. The TESS revealed that colleges were experiencing significant increases in applications for next session, notably from older people thought to be either jobless or at risk of redundancy (April 24).
This latest move reflects the increasingly pivotal role which the Government is according FE colleges in its economic strategy. Last week, a group of senior further and higher education figures were invited to make a presentation to the Scottish Cabinet on upskilling the workforce; they included principals Linda McTavish and John Burt of Anniesland and Angus colleges.
Ms McTavish, who is convener of Scotland's Colleges Principals' Convention, said: "The announcement is great news for the sector. The real winners from this extra funding are the thousands of Scottish students who will now be able to access high-quality education and training at their local college."
The new money is almost exactly what college leaders had been pressing the Government to pass on to the sector in Scotland, following the knock-on effects of the Budget. Increased spending on further education and training by Whitehall should mean an extra Pounds 12m for training and Pounds 17m for capital investment in colleges, Scotland's Colleges argued.
Unveiling the Government's latest contribution, Ms Hyslop said: "Scotland's colleges have a key role in helping people and businesses deal with the impact of the economic downturn and ensuring individuals have the skills and training they need to contribute to this country's future economic success when the recovery comes."
She said the additional funds equated to some 3,100 extra full-time places, although the numbers would be significantly higher since most college courses were part-time.
Chris Travis, chief executive of Scotland's Colleges, said: "The Scottish Government's continued commitment to Scottish education is clearly demonstrated by this announcement. Scotland's colleges are often best placed to respond to the effects of the economic downturn by offering retraining and reskilling opportunities to those finding themselves out of work."
Among recent initiatives to support FE in doing that were a Pounds 5m allocation from the Scottish Funding Council to enable colleges to work with PACE - Partnership Action for Continuing Employment - to offer retraining for those who have been made redundant this year, on top of Pounds 2m provided from January to April 2009; a 9.3 per cent increase for student bursaries and other student support such as childcare; and Pounds 13m for "accelerated" capital investment brought forward from spending planned for later years (to boost construction jobs as much as to improve college campuses).
The SFC is giving increasingly firm direction to colleges on how their funds should be used during the downturn. They are expected to provide training geared to people's job prospects, rather than to leisure or recreational courses. The funding council also wants priority given to finding places for the rising number of recent school leavers choosing to go to college, for whom jobs may be harder to find in a more competitive labour market.