Colleges could face savage funding cuts next year to plug a shortfall of up to £500 million in the overall further education budget. And the bulk of the cuts may hit courses designed to widen access to higher education.
The Times Higher has learnt that cuts of between 2 per cent and 10 per cent in college budgets are being discussed by learning and skills councils. The total budget for English colleges is £5 billion, implying a national cut of between £100 million and £500 million.
The national Learning and Skills Council's funding guidance for 2004-05 states that it is unable to fund colleges' planned intakes.
The guidance, published last week, says that "because of the level of non-priority activity being purchased, the LSC is unable to fund the proposed increases in priority activity that will count towards targets".
There is therefore a need for "significant redistribution in the mix of provision".
Local LSCs have told college heads that recruitment will need to be scaled down on courses that do not contribute to the priority skills strategy targets to boost basic and lower-level training.
The Association of Colleges said that non-priority higher education access courses, which are a popular route into university for many mature students, would be badly hit. About 40,000 students enrol on access courses each year and about 15,000 progress to higher education.
Non-priority A-level provision might also be at risk, according to the AoC.
Colleges teach about a third of all A-level students and 40 per cent of their 16 to 19-year-old students go on to higher education courses.
The association estimated that 70,000 places for adults in further education had already been lost this year.
The AoC said it was furious that a warning it had given the LSC last year, that there was a mismatch between expansion plans and the resources available, had fallen on deaf ears. John Brennan, AoC chief executive, said: "The AoC has pointed out to government the disparity between its ambitions to drive up skills levels and the resources available."
Michael Thrower, principal of Northbrook College and chairman of the Mixed Economy Group of further and higher education colleges, said: "If the LSC is in that position, then the government's whole policy of getting more people into higher education would be put at risk."
Barbara Field, principal of Harrow College, said her institution was facing cuts of about £70,000 next year, and that the LSC's "horsetrading" was likely to result in her having to significantly reduce numbers on access to higher education courses.
An AoC lobby of parliament was held on Wednesday. The association also unveiled a list of famous former college students who have lent their support to the further education sector.
Mark Haysom, chief executive of the LSC, said the sector was educating and training the highest number of 16 to 18-year-olds since the mid-1980s. He said that the LSC was funding more than 4 million learners through further education, more than ever before.
He added: "If we are to deliver all this effectively, we need to ensure that our finite resources are invested to best effect."
An LSC spokeswoman added that it was "in discussions with the Department for Education and Skills about budgets".