College incorporation may be delayed in Northern Ireland.
The five area boards - under threat of amalgamation - have privately warned the province's Department of Education that it cannot be implemented in time.
Two main issues threaten the existing timetable. Ten of the 17 colleges have running deficits. The boards say that if they are to carry the debts into incorporation the money would have to come out of the general schools budget, which would be unacceptable.
There are also severe difficulties over the transfer of undertakings, with a great deal of uncertainty over what will happen to the area board staff who have been serving the further education sector.
An announcement of the delay is expected to be made within the next two weeks. The alarm signal comes as the Government hopes to push through legislation that would give the department sweeping powers over the province's colleges following formal incorporation.
The heavily criticised draft order effectively gives the department control over every aspect of college operations. But the Government could have difficulty in getting the draft through Parliament. The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats are opposed and even the Ulster Unionists are likely to abstain on any vote.
The draft order, which cannot be amended under parliamentary rules, is aimed at bringing further education in the province into line with colleges in England and Wales.
But the Northern Ireland Colleges Consultative Forum and the lecturers' union Natfhe have argued the proposals are more crude and draconian in the province.