The warning was given this week at the London launch of a new forum for the sector, Capital FE, which has targeted the most impoverished parts of London to kick-start a nationwide campaign for more cash for colleges.
Rodney Bickerstaffe, general secretary of UNISON, the biggest public-sector union, will put the case for the group to David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, at a private dinner on the eve of the Labour party conference.
Mr Bickerstaffe praised the Government for the recent injection of #163;225 million extra for colleges folowing the Government's comprehensive spending review when he spoke at the launch. But he pointed out that considerably more was needed to reflate FE. At least #163;5 billion was needed to return FE funding to the equivalent of pre-incorporation spending seven years ago, according to some estimates.
Globalisation and the demand for new skills to meet the needs of the new information and communication technologies made investment even more pressing. "Unless FE is taken more seriously and viewed with greater importance, then whatever happens in Europe or the world over the next 30 years will leave us on the sidelines," he said.
Mr Bickerstaffe's concerns over the failure to invest adequately in FE were echoed by John Edmonds, general secretary of the General, Municipal and Boilermakers union, who said that the colleges had become central in the efforts to reskill and raise the aspirations of his members.
In a recent poll of GMB members, satisfaction and fulfilment were put above job security as the main aspiration of blue-collar workers.
The GMB survey, carried out by MORI, also showed that people in low-skill work were five times more likely to lose their jobs, compared with higher-skilled workers, and were likely to be out of work five times longer. "We have to look to the colleges and others to maximise their potential for remaining in work."
The launch of FE Capital was supported by a wide range of organisations involved in the Government's New Deal for youth and the long-term unemployed, including Focus (the central London Training and Enterprise council) and the Prince's Trust. It expects to double the numbers on programmes to 2,000 under the New Deal this year.
The involvement of the college lecturers' union NATFHE in the new partnership of trade unions, college leaders, employers and the voluntary sector also represents increasing co-operation between college managers and staff following five years of hostilites. Paul Mackney, NATFHE general secretary, said it was important that the launch was just a step in a national campaign.
The 52 Greater London colleges behind the launch will teach 450,000 students this year, a 13 per cent increase over four years during which Government spending was cut by 16 per cent.