The widely-admired work of FE's fledgling leadership centre is being threatened by a lack of public funding - making its courses too expensive for many colleges.
The Centre for Excellence in Leadership has been told it must become self-financing by April 2006, raising all its income from charging colleges. But leading figures in FE are now calling on the Government to extend support for the college to give it more time to establish itself.
The centre, which has been open for a year, has received just pound;14.4 million in core funding for its first three years. In contrast, its school equivalent, the National College for School Leadership, has received more than pound;193m from the Department for Education and Skills and this year has more than pound;111m.
Leadership development does not come cheap. With some of the new centre's programmes costing up to pound;6,000, small FE and sixth-form colleges say they simply cannot afford to share in ministers' vision of world-class leadership for the sector.
The Centre for Excellence in Leadership is run by a partnership of Lancaster university, the Learning and Skills Development Agency and Ashridge, a leading business school.
It was launched in October 2003 as a key part of the Success for All strategy, to improve management in FE and to overcome a looming leadership crisis caused by an ageing population of managers.
According to its newly-published strategy, the centre's aims include introducing services to support management, researching leadership and bring in a national framework of standards and accreditation "to raise the bar of leadership across the sector".
The centre hit the ground running, introducing a range of initiatives in its first few months. These included senior leadership development, a modular management course and a Leaders of Teachers programme.
Other courses include Roots to Treetops, where consultants go into an organisation to deliver bespoke training. CEL also offers services in careers, coaching, mentoring and work shadowing. Most recently it launched a new Leadership Skills for Governance programme, and Aspire - a professional development programme to boost opportunities for black and ethnic-minority managers.
The leadership centre has been widely welcomed in FE. Dr John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said. "It has made a lot of progress, but I think the impact on colleges has yet to be fully felt."
But he criticised the level of public funding for the centre. It received just pound;6.2m from the DfES in its first year, gets pound;5.4m this year and next year will get just pound;2.8m as it moves towards becoming self-sufficient.
"That isn't a huge amount for a vitally important development programme for the sector," said Dr Brennan.
"And I think it's a real problem that the expectation is that the organisation has to move to a self-financing basis at the end of that initial pump-priming period. I do think this is a very serious issue."
He said the funding issue poses difficult questions for the sector. With money tight, there are fears that many institutions - particularly small FE, sixth-form colleges, and adult and community learning providers - will be unable to afford the programme fees.
Typically a one-day masterclass with CEL costs pound;250, a three-day induction programme for new principals is pound;1,250 excluding accommodation, while a 20-day Senior Leadership Development programme, with accommodation, is pound;6,000.
And if you are an aspiring deputy, is your college really going to pay for you to train to become a principal when you're likely to move on elsewhere?
"I think it's a very real issue for any small institution," said Dr Brennan. "There are small colleges where finding a few hundred pounds for a development programme is one thing. Finding several thousand pounds is a completely different proposition. And you can well understand why lots of colleges baulk at committing that sort of money to one individual for a return for which they may not see the full benefit."
Dr John Capey, former principal of Exeter college and now chairman of the Institute of Assessors and Internal Verifiers, is not surprised at the level of funding for CEL. He says that since the Further Education Funding Council was set up in 1993, colleges have been expected to do more and more for less and less.
But he says FE colleges, many of them large complex organisations, need managerial acumen now as never before.
"We are beginning to realise that we have these multi-million pound institutions and they are very complex. So clearly if we require the captains of industry to have good training, surely it's appropriate that the captains of further education have it."
The Association of Learning Providers is also doubtful that private training providers will pay high programme fees. "Because of the cost I can't imagine many work-based learning providers using it," said ALP spokesman Aidan Relf.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, said training budgets are often first to go as financial pressures force institutions to cut back.
"I think the creation of the centre is also important, the expectation that people are developed and trained is important," he said. "But actually where I think the Government has made a mistake is really putting them under pressure to balance the books in three years. I think it should be a softer, more progressive thing because culture change doesn't happen that fast."
Feedback from providers shows a positive response so far to the agency's products and services, according to Lynne Sedgmore, CEL's chief executive.
"I am told frequently that what we have developed is exactly what they need, but the issue of affordability always arises," she said.
"In essence, providers feel that they do not have enough money to pay for what they need in their leadership development and capacity building.
"Having said that, more than 30 providers are finding ways to fund significant leadership improvement through CEL and 1,200 individuals are on our programmes. We have to find a way of resolving this together as CEL has to be self-financing from April 2006, which poses a significant challenge to my team and myself over the coming months."