In the wake of the virtual collapse of the discretionary award system in many parts of Britain and the sudden withdrawal of the #163;115 million cash for growth (the so-called demand-led funding), rural colleges are re-thinking their strategic futures in order to stay viable.
Howard Petch, chairman of the National Association of Principal Education Officers (NAPEO), which represents 46 agricultural and horticultural colleges in the United Kingdom, said mergers were under discussion between individual agricultural colleges, agricultural colleges and general FE colleges, and - in one instance -between an agricultural college, an institute of higher education and a university.
Mr Petch, who is also the recently-retired principal of Bishop Burton College in Beverley, Humberside, added that the disappearance of discretionary awards has left students and colleges in rural areas facing exorbitant transport costs previously met by local education authorities.
Officials sources show that maintenance grants from local education authorities for FE have dropped since 1993 from #163;244m in #163;108m and for transport from #163;32m to #163;15m. The typical agricultural college has lost between #163;75,000 and #163;150,000 despite huge increases in student numbers.
The 30 agricultural colleges in England with residential students have been hit even harder by the loss of grants for college accommodation. The association is now estimating the size of the loss.
"We can now provide substantial evidence that significant numbers of students have been disadvantaged, in some cases to the extent of not being able to take up the vocational course that they would want to pursue," he said.
There was evidence that people attending the colleges were those from backgrounds where there was parental cash for support. "The concept of equal opportunity has gone out of the window, " he said.
Now, whether a student could take up a course was much more related to where they happen to live - which LEA they were under - than to the needs of the individual or the requirements of the industries the colleges were trying to serve.
"We are concerned about the removal of support to the learner right across the board. We do not think this is just an agricultural college issue, we think it is a national issue which affects agricultural colleges more."
A further problem, he added, was that in the past few years a significant proportion of agricultural colleges had reduced their unit costs by substantially increasing their demand-led work. Now the axe had fallen, college managers were forced to look for far more fundamental savings.
"A lot of my colleagues are having to look hard at their strategic futures. Some of the very small colleges are obviously affected by this challenge to an even greater extent. The agricultural colleges do feel that the next two or three years are going to represent a defining period for this particular group."
One way to address the problems faced by rural colleges, Mr Petch said, was for the Government to take on board the recent recommendations of the Kennedy report for widening participation. This would help target cash at students in need who are being squeezed out of the system through debt or impoverishment.
"If these were applied fairly, we think that the knock-on effect in agricultural colleges would go some way to addressing our problems. There is a danger that widening participation is just seen as an urban, inner-city issue. "
The Kennedy report called for a reform of the grants system for all in FE and HE, and more, better-targeted cash to help under-represented groups, to improve staying-on rates and to assist colleges with building "strategic partnerships", and share good practice with others.
These are all issues facing colleges of agriculture and horticulture - the backbone of training for the farming industry, said Mr Petch.
"What we are saying is 'Look, it's much wider than that.' While the numbers affected by this in rural areas may be smaller, the extent to which they are affected is certainly no less and indeed in some cases is actually greater because of their remoteness."
His association, NAPEO, has submitted a report about the problems faced by rural colleges to the Further Education Funding Council and is awaiting a response.