Moves to create a level playing field for funding between further education colleges have only worsened inequalities between students, according to a study from an inner-city college.
Research published by Lewisham College in south London argues that current methods of sharing out the diminishing funding cake may produce equity between colleges, but only at the expense of whole groups of students, types of provision and areas of the country.
The study, the latest in a series of discussion papers produced by the college, arrives just as the new committee appointed by the Further Education Funding Council to review funding methods begins its work.
Its arguments will renew the longstanding debate in the sector over the fairness of the FEFC's so-called convergence policy, which seeks to iron out historical differences in the funding of colleges dating back to the time of local authority control. Funding chiefs want to equalise the sums different colleges receive for providing the same volume of programmes.
The process has sparked opposition from traditionally well-funded colleges - including Lewisham - who claim convergence is moving too quickly and taking no account of local circumstances. But the FEFC has in the past rejected arguments that college success is dependent on location.
The Lewisham paper, Equity vs Equality - the impact of convergence on colleges and students, suggests that incentives for colleges to expand - a process which lowers their funding level - have not always resulted in worthwhile educational opportunities for students.
It suggests that colleges are seeking growth by offering the best-funded courses or by franchising to third-party providers in outlying areas rather than responding to local needs.
Julian Gravatt, Lewisham senior registrar and co-author of the paper, suggests that convergence is dealing a triple blow to provision. Individual colleges whose funding levels are being forced down will have to make damaging cuts through redundancies and other measures, he claims, while areas with large numbers of high-funded institutions - generally urban areas with higher than average social and economic deprivation - will also be hit hard.
The third blow, the paper claims, strikes the curriculum, which it suggests is increasingly being dictated in FE colleges by the funding value of qualifications rather than their relevance to the local community.
Likening the current funding method to a lottery, the paper calls on the FEFC to drop its convergence policy and introduce measures such as weighting for colleges in poorer areas, capping growth funding for individual institutions and protecting certain types of provision.
The FEFC is known to give short shrift to traditionally high-funded colleges complaining about speed of change, pointing out that low-funded institutions feel equal pain as a result of the process and generally have very little fat left to cut.
A spokeswoman said: "The underlying issue is not the mechanism for distributing funds but the total funds available. We feel we have got the mechanism about right because we have complaints from both sides."
The FEFC would refer any points in the report which it believed were well-founded to the funding review group, she said.
Funding review membership, page 30