The Scottish parliament's education committee has called for greater scrutiny of college provision and for the quality of teaching in the FE sector to be protected in the light of budget cuts and reforms.
In its report on the Scottish government's 2013-14 draft budget, the committee said it had heard evidence that larger class sizes, fewer places and a greater administrative burden on teaching staff could jeopardise the quality of teaching.
The government, in conjunction with Education Scotland, should provide assurances on how quality would be maintained as the sector underwent reform, it said.
Evidence heard in recent months had also shown that there was an increasing focus on 16- to 19-year-olds, especially under the government's Opportunities for All (OFA) initiative. The committee was "concerned to ensure that any additional demand resulting from OFA will be met".
With a limited number of college places available, the government should explain "whether the prioritisation of younger learners could lead to other learners being displaced and, if so, the possible consequences for the labour market and the wider economy".
Cuts to college funding were another focus of the report: "A feature of this year's scrutiny has been the way in which several witnesses were unable to state the exact changes to further education budgets, or disagreed about whether the allocations proposed in the draft budget represented an increase or reduction on the previous year."
Part of the confusion was down to some witnesses using draft budget figures, as opposed to adjusted final budgets, for comparison. To assist scrutiny by the committee, proposed changes to the budget arising from ministerial guidance should be mentioned in draft budgets, or the draft budget and ministerial guidance should be published at the same time.
With Skills Development Scotland now playing a role in funding places, the government needed to clarify how SDS targets for future years would impact upon the Scottish Funding Council and how a clear comparison with SFC targets would be provided.
In order to compare student numbers, there had to be clarity over what exactly constituted a "student place", while a "single recognised measure of student numbers" should be established, recommended the MSPs.
Committee members also stressed that as the reform agenda progressed, the government should set out how savings from mergers would be used.
"Given the SFC's comments about the savings from regionalisation possibly resulting in `resource to spare', the committee also asks the Scottish government to clarify how this resource would be spent," said the report.
John Henderson, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, argued that as efficiencies were realised from reform, there was "a strong case for reinvesting that money back in the sector to allow colleges to strengthen and enhance their offering, building the skills of Scotland's people and supporting economic recovery".
He welcomed the committee's focus on maintaining quality, and its recommendation that Education Scotland should provide assurances in this area.
Comparable targets and measures were crucial, he said. "As the way funding changes, and the proportion delivered via Skills Development Scotland is increased, it's important that both the terms used and targets set for what will be delivered from that money are clear and comparable."
SAVE OUR COLLEGES
NUS Scotland has launched a campaign and online petition to defend college budgets. Fund Scotland's Future is calling on the government to reverse the pound;34.6 million cut proposed in the 2013-14 draft budget.
NUS Scotland president Robin Parker said: "At a time of incredibly high youth unemployment, and in a budget that was billed as focusing on economic recovery, cuts to colleges of any size are unjustifiable."