Under the Education Bill, now back in the Commons for its third reading, all publicly-funded courses leading to an external qualification will need the approval of the Education and Employment Secretary.
"This is a massive power, said Judith Norrington, AOC curriculum director. " It could be used to cut back courses not in the traditional mould. Almost 16,000 college courses - 64 per cent of their work - fall outside the traditional frame of GCSEs, A-levels, NVQs and GNVQs.
"This is a frightening power which could for apparent reasons of simplicity put a scythe through a lot of what FE colleges do."
Controls already existed in the legislation on courses paid for by the Further Education Funding Council. A better solution would be for the FEFC to be the designated body for the sector, she said.
The association is in discussion with Department for Education and Employment officials and is also briefing opposition parties.
College managers are also concerned. "There might be a danger here if the Government tried to impose NVQs on the system, by approving them and no others," said Chris Hughes, principal of Gateshead College.
"The biggest single qualification offered by the colleges is described by the FEFC as 'other'. The largest amount of work is the professional and vocational courses which have still not been turned into NVQs because the framework is still seen as inadequate," said Mr Hughes.
Sir Bob Gunn, chairman of the FEFC, has written to the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, seeking "convergence in funding" and of quality controls to stop schools exploiting a more generous provision. The FEFC analysis (see page 3) suggests that curriculum choice in schools and colleges would be lost under the Bill.
Further criticism of the Bill comes from the awarding bodies. The Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority, when accrediting and approving any qualification, "may do so on such terms (including ... payment) and subject to such conditions as they may determine," the Bill says.
Martin Cross, chief executive of the RSA, said: "These are remarkable powers to give to anybody in statute. They are saying the QNCA could impose a tax on qualifications, skills and learning. I am always worried that when people are given wide powers, they tend to use them. Any tax must add to the cost of the qualification and its accessibility."
He said it would be better if the regulators' powers were more tightly constrained, allowing development activities to remain with the bodies being regulated.
"National bodies do not have a good track record in getting things right. The national curriculum specifications were not right at the beginning, NVQs were not right from the word go and as a result they had to invent GNVQs and they were not right. It's not looking good."
"We have got 5,000 qualifications catering for different markets. How is QNCA going to decide?" he asked.