Further education college heads in Wales fear that local authority cuts will hamper the growing success of their independent institutions.
They are worried that a budget squeeze on the new unitary authorities is likely to bring reductions in vital transport grants for students on top of big cuts already made in discretionary awards.
Their concerns have been heightened by local authority reorganisation in Wales, which has left many colleges affected by a variety of policies from several education authorities. Responsibility for education grants has been handed on from eight county councils to 22 unitary authorities.
Support for students to cover the cost of travelling to and from college is crucial for maintaining access to further education in every part of rural Wales. FE principals say that there is a real danger that grants for transport will be seen as another "discretionary" service by many authorities looking for more savings to help them cover their statutory duties, such as schools funding.
Any cuts could also have a knock-on effect on Welsh higher education, with universities relying increasingly on partnerships with FE colleges to provide courses for students living in remote areas.
Jeff Cocks, principal of Pontypridd College, said institutions faced considerable uncertainty with some falling within the areas of up to six authorities, each with a different policy on grants and transport costs.
Colleges, which have outstripped Government targets for expansion in student numbers over the past two years, fear that they will be left to meet the cost of getting students to classes and providing them with books and other equipment.
"My worry is that demand from students for support will increase to the extent that it becomes an unmanageable proportion of our budget," he said.
Mr Cocks said that college mergers had left many institutions with big catchments areas, increasing the importance of good transport support in maintaining growth in student numbers.
"If you exclude south east Wales going as far as Swansea, then the rest of the area covered by colleges is almost totally rural so that there are fairly large distances for most students to travel," he added.
John Stephenson, principal of Coleg Powys, said the authority covering his own institution's area had already reduced its discretionary award budget from Pounds 250,000 to Pounds 15,000. Though it had no plans to cut back on transport, there were few other areas where reductions could be made, he said.
The college, which has campuses stretching over 100 miles of rural Wales, has written to William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales, calling for student support money to be handed directly to colleges rather than be included in local authority budgets. It is also building up strong distance-learning networks with the use of new technology to help relieve some of the transport difficulties. But Mr Stephenson suggests that even the most up-to-date technology will not compensate for the limitations of a system with transport problems.
"One of the consequences is that people would not be able to take up the range of educational opportunities which would otherwise be available. They will have to choose from what is on offer locally which will be a very restricted subset of what is on offer in the wider area," he said.
Colleges are also worried by growing competition from schools, which receive a higher unit of resource than FE institutions.
"There is a danger that the awards policies of local authorities and any cuts in transport grants could force students into staying on at school rather than joining a course at an FE college which might be more appropriate," Mr Stephenson added.
Adrian Webb, vice chancellor of the University of Glamorgan, suggested that any move by local authorities to cut grants further could also damage the effectiveness of partnership arrangements between colleges and universities such as his own, which has links with 20 FE institutions.
"As usual, it is the students who will suffer as a result," he said.