The pool of potential college recruits will expand by at least 400,000 within the first year of a Labour government pledged to abolishing Youth Training and introducing its welfare to work programme.
But Labour spokesmen unveiling the package of reforms for 16- to 25-year-olds this week warned that colleges would have to draft new partnerships with local authorities and training and enterprise councils if they expected a share of the expansion cash.
Stephen Byers, training spokesman, said: "There are no guarantees for colleges but it is something further education should now be giving detailed consideration to. It should link up with local partners to give young people education and training leading to a job."
Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have pledged similar expansion. The Tories say expansion would result from more efficient spending and co-operation between colleges and TECs already in place.
The Lib Dems say expansion would be achieved from a 2 per cent remissible training levy on employers, a share of the Pounds 2 billion raised by 1p on tax and a guarantee of two days a week off-the-job education and training for all young people.
Labour's proposals gained a fillip when the Building Employers Federation pledged 10,000 places under the new deal. This would reverse the flagging fortunes of construction courses in colleges. Entry to building apprenticeships dropped from 49,000 to 23,000 between 1990 and 1996.
New apprenticeships would last two to three years. Initially, they would be college-based and then would continue on to day release programmes, leading to NVQ level 2 or 3 qualifications.
Other parties were unmoved by Labour's success in winning over the federation, dismissing it as a "gimmick". They argued that beyond the one-off windfall levy on privatised utilities, Labour was shuffling old cash rather than committing new money.
Mr Byers, however, argued that Labour's plan represented a much more effective use of old cash. Abolition of YT would release Pounds 550m, he said, enough to shift 150,000 16- to 18-year-olds from "schemes" to "proper education and training." It would also enable 250,000 young unemployed to move from welfare to full-time study or work in the private or voluntary sectors with day-release.
The fate of 270,000 long-term unemployed adults is less certain and will depend on the outcome of suitable pilot schemes, Labour says. It predicts the package will cost up to Pounds 4bn in the lifetime of the first Parliament.
But Bryan Davies, further and higher education spokesman, said: "I expect a substantial number of these young and older people to benefit from college. "
The two biggest parties have failed to impress the colleges. A spokesman for the Association of Colleges said: "There are much wider questions of how to widen recruitment still to be addressed."
Many of the longer-term unemployed could not simply return to college. They need expensive support and guidance to get them back into effective learning.
Labour's Achilles heel was seen as its commitment to Tory spending commitments for at least two years, which includes cuts of at least 5 per cent a year in addition to Pounds 100m growth cash cuts. This could wipe out the benefits of the new deal, principals fear.
Don Foster, Lib Dem education spokesman, said: "There is no alternative to new cash if Labour is serious about its proposals. That means more taxes."
While college managers were most convinced by Mr Foster's party proposals, they believed the Lib Dems had no chance of forming the next government. There were also doubts about about the affordability of extending higher education student support to all students from the age of 16. That Pounds 2bn is being stretched beyond its elastic limit," said one principal.