Tories pledge £100m to reverse college student number decline
Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson is pledging more than £100 million extra cash for colleges over the next parliament to help them reverse the fall in student numbers.
Colleges have endured "appalling treatment" from the Scottish Government, she claimed, with statistics for 2013-14 showing the number at colleges is down by more than 140,000 since 2007-08.
The Tories are promising that further education will receive extra cash if they win May's Holyrood elections, amounting to £60 million a year by the end of the next Holyrood term in 2021.
The funding would come from a graduate contribution, the details of which have yet to be revealed, although Ms Davidson stressed this would only be paid by those "earning a decent wage".
The Tory leader hit out at the Scottish Government, accusing ministers of "discrimination" against colleges.
There were 238,399 students at Scotland's colleges in 2013-14, down slightly on 238,805 in 2012-13 and down from 379,233 in 2007-08.
Ms Davidson said: " The SNP's appalling treatment of Scotland's colleges over the last five years has been this Government's hidden shame.
"It has built monuments to itself on so-called free education, while quietly demolishing the ladder of opportunity that our colleges provide to thousands of youngsters.
"We reject the discrimination which favours academic over vocational courses. A Scottish Conservative government would therefore reverse the cuts made by the SNP to Scotland's college budget."
Ms Davidson said Tories want to make Scotland the " skills capital of Europe", supporting 35,000 modern apprenticeships a year by 2019-20.
The two initiatives, taken together, would boost the country's skills base and help grow the economy, the party claimed, after the Federation of Small Businesses found a third of small firms believe a lack of skills is holding them back.
The Tory leader said: " We would pay for this through our existing plan to back graduate contribution, paid only after university graduates are earning a decent wage."
She stressed her party did not want students in Scotland to have to pay university tuition fees that can cost students south of the border up to £9,000 a year.
"This is the Scottish Conservative alternative at this election," Ms Davidson said.
"No £9,000-a-year tuition fee as we see in England - instead, a fair contribution made by Scottish graduates helping to pay for a stronger college sector.
"It's a fair deal. It's time Labour and the SNP demonstrated they have the same vision for our country."
SNP MSP George Adam said: "This announcement from Ruth Davidson confirms that a vote for the Tories in May is a vote to end free higher education in Scotland.
"The Tories claim that their colleges policy will be funded 'in its entirety' by a graduate contribution - but without any detail about how much students would be expected to pay, or exactly when they would have to start paying it, their colleges policy has absolutely no credibility.
"It is also completely unacceptable to leave young people considering going to university in the dark about what it will cost them."
Scottish Labour's opportunity spokesman Iain Gray MSP said: "The SNP want to be judged on their record and the First Minister said education is her top priority. Well, the SNP's record on colleges is simply shameful with 140,000 fewer students in Scotland's colleges, and 3,500 fewer lecturers
"That record means lost opportunities for our young people, but those young people deserve better than unfunded promises from the Tories."