`Frozen out' by a real-terms cut
The Scottish government was accused of handing colleges a real-terms cut last week, dashing any hopes of extra funding for the further education sector.
In his draft budget speech in Parliament last week, finance minister John Swinney set the FE budget for 2015-16 at pound;526 million, sparking concerns that resources will be stretched to their limit.
Although the proposed funding represents a small increase on this year, it is still significantly below the 2010-11 level of pound;580 million, and college representatives fear it may not be enough to allow the sector to deliver on expectations.
Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, welcomed the move to increase funding for apprenticeships but demanded greater investment in colleges.
"This is not a real funding increase for Scottish colleges. It's a flat cash settlement, which means a decrease in real terms," Ms Struthers said. "The inflationary increase for student support is welcomed. However, there is less cash available to run colleges.
"The additional funding for tackling youth unemployment is necessary. The college sector looks forward to being an integral partner in the delivery of this. We'll be campaigning for more investment in colleges over the budget process. It's encouraging that MSPs spoke in favour of increased funding today."
The SNP's draft budget set out plans to increase the number of Modern Apprenticeship starts by 5,000 by 2020, and also pledged pound;16.6 million to take forward the recommendations of Sir Ian Wood's Commission for Developing Scotland's Young Workforce to provide more opportunities for young people.
But students were left disappointed by the proposals, with Gordon Maloney, president of the National Union of Students Scotland, saying that the budget was "what we expected but not what we hoped for".
"We have seen an end to yearly cuts to college budgets, but we needed to see increases in funding for bursaries for our poorest students in college and university, and this budget doesn't do that," he added. And more needed to be done to ensure that Scotland got the most out of talented people from all backgrounds, meaning that students must have "enough money to live on", he insisted.
"While this budget doesn't see the cuts we've seen to colleges in previous years, the government must recognise that too many students are still being frozen out as a result of little or no financial help," Mr Maloney said.
Opposition politicians also questioned whether the draft budget was sufficient to close the country's skills gap. Labour's shadow deputy finance minister, Jenny Marra, said the economy "desperately" needed more skilled young people.
"There is a big mismatch between training places and the needs of the economy, and the SNP must start taking this seriously. This is simply not good enough," she added. "The country is coming out of a recession. Young people should be allowed to go to college and build up their skills to help our economic recovery."
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: "We need to see action to restore college funding to 2011 levels, so more young people can get the best start in life."
In his draft budget speech, Mr Swinney said pound;330 million would be allocated to further projects under Scotland's Schools for the Future programme and pound;140 million would be provided to deliver new college campuses for Fife and Forth Valley. A further pound;160 million would be made available in 2015-16 to support the expansion of early learning and childcare, he said.
Training, youth and women's employment minister Angela Constance said the Wood Commission had "set out a blueprint to make significant improvements to Scotland's system of vocational education and therefore support more young people towards employment", adding: "An expanded budget to support this vital area of work highlights the importance we attach to it and I look forward to progressing elements of this work in the coming months."