The government's further education policy faced failure this week when it emerged that student numbers are set to fall for a second year running, after 20 years of growth.
Despite ministers' plans to get 700,000 more students into colleges by 2002, total numbers have fallen by almost 7,000 so far this year. This follows a 1 per cent drop in numbers in 1998-99 when target growth was 2 per cent.
Figures released this week by the Further Education Funding Council show a 0.3 per cent drop between November 1998 and November 1999, the first indication of final-year figures to July 2000.
Total student numbers at November 1999 stood at 2.3 million, 7,000 fewer than last year. The two consecutive falls under Labour follow a 30 per cent rise in between 1992 and 1997. There has only been one other recruitment dip in the past two decades.
John Brennan, director of further education at the Association of Colleges, said: "The figures show clearly that the government is not achieving what it was hoping for in terms of continued growth for the sector. Clearly there is an emerging problem."
The biggest fall, described as "a disappointment" this week by the Department for Education and Employment, was among adult students. The total fell by 0.9 per cent to 1.7 million, with full-time adult student numbers dropping 4.6 per cent to just 220,300.
A DFEE spokesman said measures were in place to address this shortfall, including the learndirect marketing campaign, which paves the way to the University for Industry in the autumn.
There was more hope at signs of growth among 16 to 18-year-olds, a government priority area.
A 1.5 per cent rise to 635,600 in total numbers was welcomed by the DFEE.
The AoC stressed that the rise had been achieved against a background of a buoyant economy, with more youngsters expected to get jobs and static 16 to 18-year-old population.
But even this growth falls well short of government targets. While ministers projected growth of about 21,000, mainly in full-time provision, colleges have delivered only half of that.
Dr Brennan said that the government's two main objectives were "not entirely compatible".
He said: "It wants to widen participation by increasing the participation of disenfranchised groups, which is socially a good thing, but at the same time it says it wants massive growth in numbers. It is hard to get non-participants to participate and overcome all the barriers they face, and it is much harder to generate enrolment if you want to go for growth."
Dr Brennan said that many colleges could grow, but were not in the deprived areas for which money was prioritised.
Opposition parties seized on the decline. Theresa May, conservative shadow education secretary, said: "This is yet again an instance of the government failing to deliver on its promises. It said it would expand student numbers, and numbers are falling."
She said that while the Conservatives had yet to reveal their further education policy, she wanted colleges to have greater flexibility to recruit according to local needs.
A DFEE spokesman said that colleges' franchising activities in the mid-1990s had "artificially inflated student number claims", but ministers had "been firm" on this. The subsequent clampdown on franchising activity had contributed to the numbers' decline.
The FEFC insisted that it was still on target to deliver the extra 700,000 students by 2002.