Agricultural colleges have been squeezed hardest in the Government's drive to cut costs in further education, official figures reveal this week.
Performance tables released by the Further Education Funding Council show that specialist colleges - art and design, performing arts and agriculture and horticulture - have had the largest proportional decline in state funding.
Many have been forced to seek private support and agriculture colleges in particular are further down the road to mergers than colleges in any other sector (see story, page 29).
The FEFC performance tables are the second batch to be published since February of this year. They show the differences in hitting funding targets, student successes and in recruitment and retention rates in 439 FE sector colleges. They also compare the performances in 1995-96 with those of 1994-95.
Student recruitment has held up for full-timers, with a boom in part-time enrolments, as the sector grew by 500,000 between 1994-95 and 1995-96.
There were 5 per cent more full-time students last year, compared with a 6 per cent increase the year before. Numbers of part-timers rose 21 per cent, compared with 11 per cent the year before.
On drop-out rates, 86 per cent of full-time students and 85 per cent of part-timers stayed the course for at least a year. This was down on the previous years figures of 88 and 87 respectively.
David Melville, FEFC chief executive, said the slight increase in drop-out rates was probably due to more accurate monitoring by colleges than to any "real" decline.
College principals agreed but insisted the figures overall showed that the repeated cuts had put the sector under such strain that standards were in jeopardy.
They point to evidence in the tables relating to student success rates. Almost 118,000 students aged 16 to 20 achieved NVQ level 3, contributing to national targets for education and training. This was slightly down on figures for the previous year.
But the most alarming evidence emerging, principals insist, is the extent to which much-needed vocational studies are being squeezed. Agricultural and horticultural colleges have among the highest costs because of their dispersed rural nature. They have seen budgets slashed by almost twice the level of general FE and sixth-form colleges, figures show.
The performance figures are certain to be seized on by college heads in their bid for more cash in the next budget. Roger Ward, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said there had to be a halt to the constant demand of more for less. The plight facing agriculture colleges was indicative of wider problems.
There was now overwhelming evidence that it was FE which should have the first call on new cash from the public purse not HE. Without it, he warned, much of what Labour wants of FE will not be achievable.
"Sooner or later, the sector is going to have to face up to the fact that standards cannot be maintained with the cuts unless the Government sets out its priorities for vocational education.
"With the loss of growth cash for students recruited above targets, spending is set to fall below Pounds 3 billion as the sector faces real cuts next year.
"Standards cannot continue to be maintained while provision is cut unless the Government prioritises its funding in the direction of vocational education. There is a real danger that while FE is ready to deliver Labour's manifesto for more inclusive learning, it will not be able to through lack of funds."
The performance indicator data from the FEFC shows taht three-quarters of colleges reached or surpassed their funding targets in 1995-96, compared with just over half in 1994-95.
The proportion of income earned by colleges other than from the FEFC was 30 per cent last year, compared with 25 per cent the year before. This reflects the overall cut in spending rather than any shift to private funding.
Full information on the performance indicators is available on the FEFC Internet pages: http:www.fefc.ac.uk