Colleges are braced for a bureaucratic headache when the amount of tuition that students on benefit are legally allowed is cut next week.
The rule change means that recipients of the Jobseekers' Allowance will be entitled to receive just 16 hours of teaching per week before forfeiting benefit. They can now receive 21 hours.
But many colleges are unsure how strictly the law should be applied. They say it will deter people trying to improve their skills in a bid to leave the dole queue.
The issue has been made more complicated because most colleges have cut contact teaching hours, partly for financial reasons and partly because of changing ideas about effective learning.
This means some students on full-time courses receive less than 16 hours of tuition but are supposed to spend more time working alone. This creates a dilemma for colleges asked to give information to benefits offices on the number of hours people are studying.
In Leeds, college principals and student services officers have discussed how to interpret the change.
Chris Pratt, chief executive of Airedale and Wharfedale College, Leeds, said: "The legislation is complex. The impression people get is that it is a tightening of the regulations and I suspect that it may well deter students."
Tony Colton, principal of Matthew Boulton College, said that in his college's catchment of inner city Birmingham the 16-hour rule would affect between 5 and 10 per cent of potential students.
"The 21-hour rule was bad enough," he said. "With this one we will have to wait and see how it develops over the next few weeks."
He was worried that it would damage the quality of further education. "Most of the kids that come here need us to give them more support rather than less," he said.
Danny Douglas, National Union of Students vice president (further education), said: "In some ways there won't be much change because there was confusion before and there is confusion now."
But he feared the rule would be rigorously enforced because the new computer questionnaires for benefits applicants were less flexible and Benefits Agency workers were encouraged by performance-related pay to disqualify applicants.
He said funding factors were putting colleges under pressure to take on students likely to complete their qualifications and this could make them reluctant to risk recruiting people constantly missing classes for job interviews or work.
The National Union of Students is organising a lobby of Parliament to protest against the new benefit rules and lack of discretionary grants on November 12.
* Governors at a Midlands further education college have set up an inquiry into the governance and management following bullying allegations.
The corporation of Stoke-on-Trent College has set up a working group of five governors, chaired by John Seddon, to look at changes to the college since incorporation and the way they have been managed.
The inquiry was prompted by criticial surveys by lecturers' union Natfhe and public sector union Unison, which revealed complaints of low staff morale, increased workloads and intimidation.