Colleges are to put pressure on the government for a fairer deal for 16- to 18-year-olds, after skills minister Nick Boles told them not to expect any more money.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) is calling for a "once-in-a-generation" review of education funding across the age range in England, to introduce "rational" funding for post-16 learners.
Since 2010, the government has ring-fenced education funding for 5- to 16-year-olds, effectively protecting the schools budget but leaving further education colleges to bear the brunt of a number of cuts, including a 17.5 per cent drop in funding for 18-year-olds from last month.
The AoC said the funding rate for 16- to 18-year-olds was at least 22 per cent less than that of 11- to 16-year-olds and less than half the rate of university students.
Officials at the Department for Education are currently devising a national funding formula for schools, but no such exercise for post-16 education is taking place.
AoC president Richard Atkins said there was no rational basis for the current funding system, especially with the new requirement for young people to stay in education or training until 18.
"We are very aware that there's no more money and there may indeed be less money after the general election," he told TES. "All we are asking for is funding on a rational basis rather than an historical basis.
"The 16-18 curriculum offer is the broadest and most complex; you have academic options including A-levels, vocational courses, apprenticeships, level 1 and 2 provision, SEN [special educational needs] provision. The resource requirements are huge, yet it bears the brunt of government cuts."
He added: "Why is 16-18 singled out for these cuts repeatedly? We are asking someone to look at the whole education system and say there's a rational reason for cutting 16-18. This isn't about colleges, but students. We must start talking about an education system for 3-18 instead of 5-16."
Mr Atkins, who is also principal of Exeter College, said that the AoC would keep raising the issue with ministers and officials, as well as lobbying the main political parties in the run-up to next year's general election. He warned that further cuts could hamper colleges' ability to provide a broad curriculum to students.
"The fear is that if we continue to take cuts then minority subjects like A-level modern foreign languages or specialist vocational courses like construction will disappear because they will simply become undeliverable," he said.
The NUS students' union said it would welcome a review of funding for FE learners. Its president Toni Pearce, who is a former FE college student herself, accused the government of "turning its back" on the people who needed the most support.
"Cuts to further education tend to affect FE colleges more than schools, meaning that FE students are yet again being treated like second-class citizens," she said.
But Ms Pearce added that any review of FE funding should also include the government's advanced learning loans scheme for over-24s, which she claimed left many people who were "failed by the education system first time around" saddled with huge debts.
"Further education provides important second chances for millions of people, where all learners are treated as adults and given the opportunity to build their learning experience with their teachers - which is why cutting funding for these groups of students is incredibly damaging," she said.
However, calls for fairer funding are likely to fall on deaf ears. So far, only the Liberal Democrats have pledged to ring-fence education spending to include post-16, with leader Nick Clegg telling delegates at last week's annual party conference that he would protect funding from "cradle to college".
But Mr Boles told TES last week that colleges should not expect any more cash.
"Although I entirely accept it's been very tough for colleges and that they have really been put up against it.nevertheless I think.it's an entirely sensible and logical thing to do to protect funding for school-aged education," the minister said.
"We are being demanding and we are not giving [colleges] all the money they would like.but I think it's the right thing to do."
`Cuts have taken us to the edge'
David Walrond, principal of Truro and Penwith College in Cornwall, says the Association of Colleges is right to press the issue of funding.
"As a college we have been able to absorb the cuts so far but it has taken us to the edge," he says. "We are a large and successful provider and we are thriving, but even we are going to struggle if there are further cuts."
Mr Walrond says that more cuts to student funding would threaten some of the extra services the college provides, such as access to a mental health nurse, certain community projects and sports and arts provision.
"We would also have to look at those subjects we run that don't have the economies of scale, such as politics, economics and modern foreign languages," he says.