The future of further education in England could hinge on next week's Budget, senior figures in the sector have warned.
As George Osborne gears up to deliver the first Budget from a solely Conservative government since 1996, FE experts said the chancellor's decisions could prove to be crucial for the sector.
The Treasury has instructed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to find pound;450 million of savings this year, and funding for adult education has already been slashed by 24 per cent for 2015-16.
The Department for Education, too, has been asked to cut pound;450 million from its budget - and with funding protected for students up to the age of 16, fears are growing that FE could bear the brunt.
The government is also pressing ahead with plans to create 3 million apprenticeships by 2020, a target skills minister Nick Boles said last week would need more investment to achieve. At the same time, he warned that "difficult choices" would have to be made about the "less productive" parts of the FE system.
He also questioned whether the general FE college model had a future "when resources are constrained".
Also last week, a report by King's College London professor Baroness Wolf warned that FE could "vanish into history" because the current funding system was "destroying" the sector. Lady Wolf, who penned an influential report on vocational education for the government in 2011, told TES that the impending Budget was "symbolically important" because it would lay the foundations for the next five years.
"This is a really critical Budget," she said. "If we allow them to shave away at the FE budget again, it will be almost impossible, another year on, to reverse direction."
Lady Wolf claimed that universities had been "written a blank cheque" in recent years, at a time when FE had suffered repeated cuts. "We have a situation where we are pouring huge amounts of money into one part of the system while starving another part of it," she said.
"If the government continues to cut into FE, it will mean they haven't really stood back and thought about where they want education to be five to 10 years from now. It doesn't mean that all FE colleges are going to barricade their doors tomorrow, but year-on-year we have been chipping away at the funding for their core functions, and that cannot go on for ever."
Andrew Harden, national official for FE at the University and College Union, said the importance of the Budget could not be underestimated. "I think it's obvious that now it's crucial: the very future of FE is at stake," he said.
"Alison Wolf's report is very timely and makes it clear that we can't keep squeezing FE funding like this. It's a real tragedy.
"If the government keeps to this course, it's almost like they are cutting their nose off to spite their face. It doesn't make any sense. The indications at the moment are that they are just not listening. I hope they draw breath and take notice of what's becoming an increasingly important debate."
Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said that although he understood why Mr Boles was raising questions about the future of the general FE college model, it was "difficult" to envisage a world where colleges would not play a crucial role in improving skills and productivity.
"We must be careful here that we don't lose more than we have to gain by being cavalier in how we address current institutions," he said. "It's remarkable that, in the face of cuts, so many colleges are surviving and continuing to thrive."
AoC members are having to contend with shrinking budgets; last week, the association revealed that colleges were not planning to offer any pay rises to staff in 2015-16.
"Over the last five years, FE has taken a disproportionate share of the cuts within education funding," Mr Doel said.
"I think it is important that colleges tell the stories about what would be lost if that continued. This is not about selfinterest; there will be a need for what colleges do for at least another 50 years."
`Every cut means more opportunities lost'
The funding uncertainty has united the sector in an unprecedented way.
Last Friday, leading figures delivered a petition with more than 42,000 signatures opposing further adult skills budget cuts to Downing Street (pictured).
The campaigners included Martin Doel, chief executive of the Association of Colleges; Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union; David Hughes, chief executive of adult learning body Niace; Mark Baker, president of the ATL teaching union; and Megan Dunn, president of the NUS students' union.
Mr Hughes describes the idea of further cuts as "an appalling prospect".
"Every cut means more opportunities lost for people to enhance their life chances, support their family and community, and support a more productive economy," he says.
"Further education provides so much to support this government's ambitions for a more productive country that supports social mobility."