Statistics in their manifesto have angered college association and union leaders who have accused the party of "fibbing" and "a sleight of hand".
The Tory manifesto claims: "Three-and-a-half million people are in further education, up from just half a million in 1979." A Central Office spokesman insisted: "It is a DFEE figure which we use in all our briefings."
But figures from the then Department of Education and Science put college recruitment that year at between 940,000 and 1.2 million.
College principals said this threw doubt on the wider claims for education made by the Conservatives. Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College, accused them of "manipulating" the 1979 figure.
John Brennan, development officer for the Association of Colleges, said the figures may be even more misleading. "Students on some vocational and short courses were not counted in 1982-83."
The three main political party manifestos (for details, see pages 6 and 7) this week confirmed that colleges face stiff competition for limited new resources regardless of who wins power on May 1.
Tories promised national traineeships, learning credits for all those aged 14 to 21, more objective assessment of NVQs, encouragement for Investors in People and support for training and enterprise councils.
Labour says the FE sector is "critical" to promoting adult learning. But Bryan Davies, FHE spokesman, had earlier warned that beyond a share of the windfall tax on private utilities, colleges could expect no new money.
Central to its post-16 education and training plans are broader A-levels, upgraded vocational qualifications, individual learning accounts using Pounds 150 million of TEC money to start them up, and the university for industry.
Pledges to return college pay to national bargaining, introduce a "qualified lecturer status" and set new targets for 16-19 training and day-release entitlements have already been extensively reported.
Liberals have promised to introduce learning accounts, student loans and better and more equal financial support for all from 16, a 2 per cent training levy on employers and a new Quality Council to maintain standards and value for money.
Leaders of the TECs want further commitment in two key areas: continuity and support for disaffected young people.
Richard Smith, acting chief executive of Manchester TEC, said: "We must have continuity to build upon our success stories. Programmes like the Modern Apprenticeship scheme build on a relationship between ourselves, the employer and the young person."
Schemes like learning credits had helped TECs reach disaffected youths. But this meant getting to them at school. "It is no good trying to change people at 16," he said.
For South Glamorgan TEC, the main issue is how to get 18 to 25-year-olds back to work. Paul Sheldon, chief executive, said: "Given limited work experience, in areas which are old-fashioned and labour-related, we are not training people for real jobs in the future."
All parties must support TECs in key areas. For example, he said: "In smaller companies there is massive resistance to training so we need more funds for pump-priming."
Individual Learning Accounts were to be applauded but they should go further. "People should get an entitlement to free training whatever their age, if they have not had a previous entitlement."