Fears of a financial crisis in further education were allayed this week as the Learning and Skills Council scrapped plans to freeze post-16 funding.
But the LSC's revised offer of a 3 per cent real-terms funding rise over two years was condemned as "something and nothing, rather than something for something" by college leaders.
Further education heads had been horrified to hear of the LSC's first two draft circulars, which were due to inform them that the sector should expect no funding rise for two years and that they had six weeks to prepare new three-year strategic plans.
The news led delegates at the Association of Colleges' summer conference in Cambridge on Tuesday to bombard Rob Hull, director for qualifications at the Department for Education and Skills, with demands for more information about funding.
Mr Hull, who was attending in place of education and skills secretary Estelle Morris, said there could be no more money from the government until the next spending review. He said it was up to the LSC to deal with funding issues in the meantime.
But the next day, LSC chief executive John Harwood told the conference that more money would be made available and that the deadline for strategic plans would be extended to September 30.
AoC officials, who had already warned that further education colleges were in such dire financial straits that they were no better off than they were shortly after incorporation six years ago, said the promised 3 per cent rise would not be enough to address the sector's staff pay problems.
John Brennan, the AoC's director of further education development, warned that colleges had racked up a deficit of £250 million.
Although the total amount of money entering the sector had risen and the decline in colleges' unit of resource had been halted, there was less money without strings attached. "Colleges have less and less control over their budgets year on year. That is why we are still facing an increasing squeeze," Mr Brennan said.
The funding problems are harming the ability of colleges to meet urgent pay demands, which has caused lecturers' union leaders to threaten escalating strike action, said David Gibson, the AoC's chief executive.
Sister Dorothy Bell, who chairs the Sixth Form Colleges' Employers' Forum, added: "The government is presenting us with colossal expectations, but unless it gets the funding right these will just be pie in the sky."