HALF of 16 to 19-year-olds in colleges have never met a member of Connexions, the Government's careers advice service for teenagers, according to a survey published this week.
The Association of Colleges, which carried out the survey, challenged ministers to abandon the original aim of a universal service or find more money. Connexions is currently being reviewed by the Department for Education and Skills, which runs the service.
At many of the 80 colleges surveyed teenagers were actually getting less advice than they received before Connexions was launched in 2001, the AoC said.
Many young people were forced to make decisions about employment and education without the support of Connexions staff.
The AoC said the students were losing out as unemployed young people outside education got the lion's share of advice.
Judith Norrington, of the AoC, said: "We are not saying that people who are in the NEET (Not in Employment, Education and Training) group shouldn't be getting the support they are.
"But Connexions was set up as a universal service. If it is not a universal service, they should say so."
Some principals are raiding other budgets to pay for careers advice because they are not being funded for a Connexions adviser.
They say Connexions is relying too heavily on its website to advise students who are not getting face-to-face sessions.
The AoC said ministers should either come clean about Connexions being targeted at jobless people not in education or boost its pound;400 million budget by pound;75m over three years from 2005-8.
Colleges claim the extra cash would give every student at least an hour a year of one-to-one help.
But there were no indications from Government this week that it would pick up the tab.
Skills minister Ivan Lewis, attended the AoC and Sixth-Form Colleges' Forum joint conference on 16-19 education in Cambridge on Tuesday when the survey was published. He warned against relying too much on careers guidance and stressed the importance of work experience. He said: "Careers guidance is not just about a two-hour interview. It is about how experience of the world of work can influence the decisions they make."
Colleges spend an average of pound;37,000 on advice, over and above Connexions support, and, in some cases, as much as pound;100,000. Despite the priority Connexions places on needy teenagers, one in four colleges reports that its vulnerable students are not getting the support they need.
A spokeswoman for the AoC said: "Colleges are using teaching budgets in order to supplement the inadequate provision."
Rob Wye, director of the Learning and Skills Council's chief executive's department, admitted to the conference that he was "irritated" by the 10 per cent funding "gap" between schools and colleges and has been urging ministers to sort out the disparity.
There is evidence that some colleges may have fallen more than 30 per cent behind nearby schools competing for the same students.
Nigel Robbins, principal of Cirencester college, claims it gets 37 per cent less per student than one local school sixth form.
The Association of Colleges and the LSC both believe the 10 per cent figure is accurate. But Julian Gravatt, of the AoC, says Cirencester's figures suggest there may be wide variations around the country.