The funding dilemma has been highlighted by the current passage of social security and asylum-seekers legislation. But heads of language-support departments say the problems are already immense for first generation immigrants and others whose needs are seen as too small for the Further Education Funding Council's spending formula to account for.
Establishing a clear picture of the national costs of support for people with ethnic minority language needs in colleges is extremely difficult. Though the colleges can receive cash from three sources - the Home Office, the FEFC and the Department of the Environment - statistical evidence of cash allocated is extremely difficult to obtain. Hence it is virtually impossible to say whether the national needs are being met.
Much of the Government cash for inner cities once available through different sources has been directed into the Single Regeneration Budget through the DoE. A department spokeswoman said that 71 per cent of the 172 bids on the budget for educational purposes had been met. But she could not say which were for language support.
The Home Office was unable to give any breakdown of its spending, though the Association of Metropolitan Authorities was able to give some indication. A spokesman said that Pounds 2.7 million in Section 11 funding from the Home Office went to 40 further education colleges last year. About 90 per cent of this was spent on teaching, the greater part of it being for language support.
And although much language support work in colleges was automatically funded by the FEFC, the information officer, Patricia Stubbs, said the council was unable as yet to give figures on enrolments or the total cost involved at present.
A rough estimate from the FEFC and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities' sources suggests that around two-thirds of students in one in eight, largely inner-city colleges and adult education centres have English as a second language needs.
Extra money to cover the cost of additional language work for individual students experiencing problems while following an academic or vocational course is available from the funding council.
The FEFC works on a complex formula of funding "units" which take into account not only student numbers but a range of local and individual needs and weightings based on the costs of courses.
Short courses of fewer than 10 basic units do not qualify for additional funding however and this has become a significant issue to some inner-city colleges.
Another pressure on staff involved in language-support bids to the FEFC is the provision of "auditable evidence" of the teaching costs involved through working with individual students. This has proved time-consuming and difficult according to some practitioners.
One complained: "They are fantastically complicated. The FEFC needs to spell out extremely precisely the standards of auditability it requires for additional support units."
When colleges submit funding claims to the FEFC, they must follow a complex formula based on a number of cash bands. The lowest band for students needing minimal help in English for speakers of other languages ranges from Pounds 170-Pounds 500 a year.
But giving the data needed for even minimal support is not easy, say college heads. Honor Dixon, vice-principal of Matthew Boulton College in Birmingham, said: "We have a problem claiming as much as our students need. Hitting the required threshold when you have large numbers needing small amounts of help can be very difficult."
The formula penalises the most needy. "It would be helpful if this was improved, because at present there is not sufficient recognition of the issue and its impact on inner city colleges," she said.
The Government's plans to restrict benefits for asylum-seekers entering further and higher education will make problems worse, principals have warned.Judith Norrington, head of curriculum for the Association for Colleges, said:"If the Government follows through its intentions these people will lose the opportunity to be supported through college."