LAST week's exchanges between MPs on Scottish further and higher education turned into a skirmish between Labour and the SNP, as each tried to test the other's weak spots on student funding. At times it was hard to remember that the debate in the Scottish Grand Committee had been initiated by the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, accused the SNP of acting like "professional mourners." Their refusal to give an outright commitment to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to abolish tuition fees if they were the governing party amounted to "hot air and humbug".
The SNP retorted with charges of "betrayal" - accusing Labour of hamstringing the devolved Parliament by sticking to the previous Government's spending plans.
Mr Wilson noted that the SNP seemed prepared to abide by its inheritance from Labour after Andrew Welsh, the Nationalist member for Angus, said: "We will make good, as far as we can within the limit of resources given, the mistakes of the present Labour Government".
John Swinney, the SNP's Treasury spokesman, explained that it would be difficult to sustain public services "when the Labour Government are carrying on Tory cuts." Mr Welsh had worked out that the Government's hardship fund, giving some students a loan of up to pound;250, was "less than one pot noodle a day".
When the MPs settled down, Mr Welsh claimed the pound;14 billion Scottish Office budget would be reduced by pound;1.6 billion over the next year, leaving less money for the devolved Scottish Assembly to spend. Proper resourcing would only come with independence.
Mr Wilson repeated that an extra pound;17 million was being given to higher education. Another pound;11.4 million had gone to further education. The Minister admitted this was "a small real-terms cut", although a 1.5 per cent increase in cash terms.
Jim Wallace, the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, pointed out that FE leaders say they need an extra pound;25 million to expand while meeting existing commitments. Universities and colleges were "desperate to meet the challenges but are like dogs straining onthe leash of financial restraint".
Donald Gorrie, Liberal Demo-crat spokesman said the main problem was that universities and colleges could not plan ahead because "funding is retrospective and the formula is variable".
The speeches from the Labour benches supported the Minister. But Lewis Moonie, the Kirkcaldy MP, warned that the Government would have to change "the culture in Scotland about taking out loans" if its policy was to succeed.