One-in-ten staff at many further education colleges have been warned they could be redundant within three months because of huge budget deficits.
High-spending inner-city colleges which failed to reach the Government's recruitment targets this autumn will be hit hardest. The City of Liverpool Community College is threatening to shed 150 jobs to save Pounds 3.2 million. Equally draconian cuts are expected in Sheffield, Europe's largest college, and Southwark in south London.
A nationwide crisis has also been created by the continuing collapse in recruitment to areas such as engineering and construction, central to economic regeneration, says John Mowbray, secretary of the Association for College Management.
No department is immune. "Senior post-holders are very vulnerable. With salaries around Pounds 30,000 to Pounds 45,000, there is big money to be saved," he said. Appeals for help from ACM members were at a record high. "It is one of my thickest files."
A pre-Christmas rush to serve 90-day protective redundancy notices - required by law, whether or not the threat is carried out - has led to the gloomiest picture yet. Whether colleges can pull back from the brink or find alternative cuts, no principal this week was willing to predict. A survey by NATFHE, the lecturers' union - before budgets and recruitment figures were known - estimated 800 job losses at most. Now thousands of jobs are on the line.
East Devon College is to lay off 10 per cent of the workforce, Wigan and Leigh has issued notices to 70 part-timers, and Brunel College of Arts and Technology has shed 13 staff and may cut more.
The need for redundancies has led to bitter recriminations over the Further Education Funding Council's new spending formula, aimed at boosting student recruitment and driving down costs among high spenders. Faced with the recession and other factors, say principals, "cuts are going too far too fast" and "there is no allowance for differences in urban deprived areas and leafy glades."
Pam Peers, deputy principal of Liverpool, said: "Inner-city colleges in areas of high unemployment are facing particular problems in that the new funding arrangements take no account of the high costs of providing cr ches and other support for students.
The Association of Principals of Colleges is to lobby the FEFC for a rethink on funding. Dave Gibson, APC president, said: "Inner cities bear the brunt of the difficulties. If students drop-out we lose money, if they stay on it costs us dearly in terms of financial support."