All indications are that the sector will do extremely well in next month's government spending review which will add pound;28 billion to public spending. Growth in spending on FE and training will continue until at least 2003.
But the Education and Employment Secretary is alarmed at the lack of research evidence driving college reforms since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act.
Baroness Blackstone, Minister of State for Education and Employment, has asked the Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) to take charge of an expanded research scheme for colleges and workplace training.
In a letter to the agency, Alan Clarke, head of standards and quality at the Department for Education and Employment, said: "Ministers are concerned that there is insufficient research to support policy making in the FE and work-based training fields."
Mr Clarke detailed Government demands for new FE and professional staff development, evaluation schemes, support for providers of education and training and dissemination of good practice (details and full text of the letter at: www.tesfefocus.co.uk).
Mr Blunkett knows urgent action must be taken if he is to hit targets of 700,000 more students in FE and training by 2002. Last month, Further Education unding Council data showed an overall drop in 1999 of 0.3 per cent. Numbers of 16 to 18-year-olds on full-time courses rose by 1.4 per cent but enrolment among adults fell by 4.6 per cent. Neither statistic will please Mr Blunkett.
Research by NIACE, the national organisation for adult learning, shows that men stay away from college in droves, seeing such a return to learning as "a step down the career ladder".
Tens of thousands of full-time equivalent students were lost to the sector when the franchising of courses to third-party providers was stopped last year.
Ministers are also concerned at destructive competition between schools and colleges for sixth-formers and the failure of many schools and colleges to encourage brighter students into industry-based Modern Apprenticeships.
The choice of FEDA as the ministers' agent "to work with officials to explore ways of moving forward this agenda" is a major fillip for it.
In 1997, the agency was castigated for poor performance by the Commons education and employment select committee which questioned its value as a publicly-funded body. But three years on, under new chief executive Chris Hughes, it is a leading research agency with a pound;17m turnover.
Terry Melia, chair of FEDA, said: "This is a huge challenge. The sector will cost...pound;6bn next year and ministers want...to make sure it is being spent properly."