The Government has taken issue with the Educational Institute of Scotland over the union's claim that the 43 incorporated further education colleges north of the border are running a deficit of Pounds 20-Pounds 30 million.
A Scottish Office spokesman said: "We don't know where they got these figures from."
Accounts for 1996-97 show 19 colleges are in deficit - but by just Pounds 8 million. The others are in credit, leaving a net deficit of Pounds 3.48 million, 0.84 per cent of total college income for the year of Pounds 416 million. The spokesman said even pension liabilities from restructuring would take debts to only Pounds 14 million spread over a number of years.
The EIS says it has major reservations about the way in which college accounts are presented, particularly the calculation of restructuring costs arising out of staff retirements. It is sticking by its figures.
The union meanwhile has written to the Education Minister pressing him to take urgent action on the "dangerously unstable" management of FE. This follows the third day of strike action last week at Reid Kerr and Clydebank colleges which are embroiled in pay disputes. The unrest is a symptom of "more deep-seated problems which face the whole FE sector", Ronnie Smith, the EIS's general secretary, told Brian Wilson.
Mr Smith said the union was nearing the point of balloting for industrial action at another three colleges. Thirteen colleges had still not reached pay settlements for last year. The move away from national towards plant bargaining had been "both wasteful and ineffective".
The Scottish Office points out that Pounds 3 million in "new money" is being put in. But the Association of Scottish Colleges claims the reality will be a decrease of Pounds 2.1 million compared with this year's grant, although the previous government's plans would have seen a fall of Pounds 5 million for 1998-99.