Michael Forsyth, secretary of state for Scotland, has come under fire for positive discrimination in his enthusiasm for a university of the Highlands and Islands.
At this week's Scottish Grand Committee in Inverness, Mr Forsyth announced he was boosting higher education places in FE colleges in the Highlands and Islands, since they would make up the core of a new university. But the overall cap on higher education in further education colleges will remain.
"I believe the establishment of a Highlands and Islands University would bring economic benefits to the region," he said. "As an important step forward, I am prepared to agree to an expansion in higher education places in further education colleges in the Highlands and Islands in the forthcoming academic year."
But the Association of Scottish Colleges, and the Scotland Polytechnics Group, which includes six institutions with a large proportion of higher education courses, are set to lobby the Scottish Office for equal treatment across the country.
"What's special about the Highlands and Islands?" asked Graham Clark, principal of Falkirk College, a leading member of the SPG. "Nobody's arguing against the Highlands and Islands University, which is an excellent initiative, but why should the cap be lifted there when there is just as much proven demand elsewhere in the country?" The Scottish Office says the expansion will be possible through a decrease in overall demand for HE courses in colleges, but Tom Kelly, chief officer of the ASC, was "a bit sceptical" of this claim.
Colleges had responded responsibly to the capping, and the ASC believed there had been a drop in supply of HE courses rather than a drop in demand, Mr Kelly said.