Colleges will have to cope with unprecedented expansion in part-time student numbers to meet Tony Blair's target of getting 500,000 people into college or university by 2002.
Numbers will have to grow by 25 per cent each year to hit the Prime Minister's goal, funding chiefs told colleges. Full-time student numbers will also have to grow, Geoff Hall, the Further Education Funding Council's head of policy, said.
The proposed expansion, estimated to cost Pounds 500 million over three years, would represent more than twice the growth achieved by colleges since 1994. But Mr Hall told principals: "I have no doubt the sector can easily achieve it."
Figures produced by the council predict 69,000 extra full-time places for 16 to 18-year-olds and 14,000 places - equivalent to an extra 42,000 students - for teenagers studying part-time.
Mr Hall told principals that 70,000 places - the equivalent of another 290,000 students - would be needed for part-time adult students - representing a 25 per cent increase every year between now and 2002.
The predictions confirm the scale of the task set by Mr Blair, amid fears from some experts that officials will have to resort to manipulating training figures to meet the 500,000 target. Speaking at the council's annual conference in Birmingham, Professor David Melville, the council's chief executive praised ministers for their new approach to further education and also Mr Blair's promise to provide 500,000 extra college places.
But he warned that cash must be allocated to make the dream a reality. He said: "This commitment from Government represents an extraordinary opportunity for further education. If this ambitious target is to be hit the commitment of new funds must be made soon.
"For FE to take the lion's share, which could be 400,000 students, we must all be positioning ourselves and developing a convincing case in the minds of the public, politicians and government that FE can and will deliver."
Professor Melville added: "Their determination to move forward and finding the funding to do so, on the areas highlighted in their manifesto, is most impressive. The new initiatives being announced are forward-thinking and get to the heart of the areas that we ourselves have identified as requiring assistance.
"In being responsive we will ensure that we secure our share of the 500, 000."