Henry McLeish, Scotland's new minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, has delighted further education by hailing it as the centre of excellence and centre of communities in promoting a learning revolution.
Mr McLeish, speaking at the Association of Scottish Colleges' annual conference, said further education would play an increasing role in boosting Scotland's competitiveness.
But he said the sector had always combined a strong vocational mission with genuine concern for the disadvantaged and excluded, and was therefore crucial to the government's social inclusion agenda.
"We need to make learning so attractive and people so aware of its value, that lifelong learning as a part of adulthood becomes the norm rather than the exception," said Mr McLeish.
A Napier University study has revealed that Scottish further education colleges are generally closer to deprived areas than more affluent ones. Gillian Raab, who carried out the government-commissioned applied statistics survey with Kirsteen Davidson, said: "We set out to find areas where people couldn't get to further education colleges, and were surprised to find there weren't very many of them."
The report shows more than 90 per cent of Scotland's population live within 30 minutes' driving time of a college, and 63 per cent live within a four-mile radius. This proportion is even higher, 77 per cent, for people in deprived areas.
On July 1, the new Scottish Further Education Funding Council takes over full funding responsibilities for the sector. Chief executive John Sizer told the conference that there was likely to be a sharp drop in the annual rate of growth, around 10 per cent in recent years.
The government has set a target of 40,000 extra student places in the next three years, and Professor Sizer said funding announced for 1999-2000 should allow a maximum 3 per cent expansion for the sector as a whole.
He predicted the maximum growth affordable in 2000-01 would be 5 per cent, assuming a 1 per cent efficiency gain, and continuing emphasis on part-time places. "The council wanted to give you an early indication of how it saw numbers evolving in the next year, rather than the searchlight shining into fog," he said.