Ambitious bids for reform by lecturers' and students' leaders have been thwarted by concerted opposition from the conference floor.
Natfhe general secretary John Akker lost the argument against a national college lecturers' strike and was rebuffed over union streamlining plans, which had been interpreted by some as an attack on far left activists.
And National Union of Students president Jim Murphy was left reeling by a fightback against funding reform which saddled the union with renewed policies for demonstrations and occupations in support of full grants.
"All the different groups on the ultra left put aside their differences and pooled their resources today," said Mr Murphy after defeat at the special NUS conference on student financial support in Derby. "We have seen a well funded campaign for free education, not funded by students, but by external political factions."
Mr Akker cited financial rather than political reasons for reforming Natfhe's structure at its conference in Torquay. But he said "ordinary members" needed a greater say in running the union and he was worried that many seats on the plethora of union committees were being filled unopposed.
He added: "This union has a structure that is very, very expensive to operate. It has many levels to it and I believe this system is no longer relevant to a modern education union."
His advice that a national ballot on striking was all but impossible for financial, legal and administrative reasons was ignored. And the main conference passed a motion saying: "Anti trade union legislation should not be used as an excuse for Natfhe failing to organise national strike action."
As one executive member told The THES: "Conference has always represented the extremists of the political spectrum in the union but now there are many more of them."
However Natfhe's national executive has deferred the ballot process until after the further education pay claim is presented, making a national strike during college enrolment less likely.
NUS left-wing activists hailed the Derby conference as a victory for the principle of free education and called for Mr Murphy's resignation. Kevin Sexton, NUS London convener and a supporter of the Campaign for Free Education said: "I think the president is in a very untenable position. He put himself on the line and lost."
NUS reformers hoped for a new policy of reasoned opposition to top-up fees and agreement that graduates should contribute to maintenance costs once their income reached average levels.
However the traditional call for 1979-level grants, in abeyance since NUS annual conference in March, was reinstated. The conference also passed an amendment calling for a "defend free education" week, as well as a one-day shut down and co-ordinated occupations in protest at declining grant levels.
Several dispirited unions talked of disaffiliating as a result. But Mr Murphy drew comfort from another amendment calling for further research on student financial support. "I am not going to resign - amendment one says we should continue the review," he said after the conference.
"A considerable number of delegates voted for change which is a considerable shift on policy which only last year would have been given very short shrift."
Opposition to Mr Murphy's preferred option for change, Maintenence Income Contingent Loans (MICL), gained momentum during the conference. The left narrowly won the first vote of the 684 delegates, on not changing policy on student financial support, by just 14 votes. The crucial MICL amendment was lost on a card vote by 480,331 to 362,622.
Reaction was split between delight and despair. Douglas Trainer, NUS Scotland president, said: "I would say it is a demonstration of the growing maturity of NUS that we were able to have the debate at all. It was a shame it was so polarised today."
Middlesex University delegate Nikki Johnson said: "I think this shows ordinary students do want to fight back."