Further education colleges' ability to expand their higher education work is being hampered by a worsening staffing crisis.
An Association of Colleges survey shows that the number of unfilled teaching posts in further education rose by 25 per cent this year to more than 3,000.
In a move to stem the crisis, the Learning and Skills Council announced this week that hundreds of further education lecturers will receive "golden hellos" of up to £4,000 each.
The £2.7 million initiative aims to recruit and retain FE teachers in eight subject areas, either in FE colleges, specialist colleges, or HE institutions that provide FE.
College heads blame low rates of pay compared with schools, the private sector and higher education for the staff shortfalls.
The AoC said nine out of ten colleges had teaching vacancies, and 61 per cent of colleges were also experiencing difficulties in retaining lecturers. There has been a 44 per cent increase since last year in the number of vacancies for support staff and managers in colleges, with almost 5,000 jobs unfilled across the sector.
The news comes as lecturers and support staff prepare for strike action over pay next month.
Ivor Jones, the AoC's director of employment policy, said the crisis was affecting all activities, including colleges' efforts to expand into higher education to help meet the government's 50 per cent participation target.
He said: "We have had some anecdotal evidence over the past year of staffing problems, but we were genuinely startled by the results of our survey."
Some colleges that have aimed to boost recruitment of students on professional training courses at higher education level have been held up by the staffing problems.
Noel Otley, principal of Havering College of Further and Higher Education, said staffing shortages had prevented his institution from expanding its top-rated social-work training.
He said: "We just cannot recruit the staff because we cannot afford to pay them enough. We are not only competing with higher education, but also with the professional jobs market."
Mixed-economy colleges had an additional problem, he said.
"Our HE staff are expected to undertake research as well as teach... which makes them more expensive," said Mr Otley.
Mr Jones said the results of the survey had been passed to ministers for consideration as part of the government's spending review.