Colleges nationally have failed to hit the three-year 25 per cent expansion targets set by Government, and are unlikely to achieve them before 1997. Three out of 10 FE and sixth-form colleges must also rethink their strategic plans for next year after being told by the Further Education Funding Council that their financial planning is unsound.
The council blames faulty calculation of student numbers - before colleges left local education authority control - for much of the apparent shortfall.
Sir William Stubbs, FEFC chief executive, said: "The starting point for growth in the sector in 1992-93 was lower than the figure estimated when the Secretary of State's targets were calculated."
But there is also overwhelming evidence in the strategic plans of 448 colleges of damage wrought by conflicting Government policies on open competition with school sixth forms, and an exodus of pupils driven out of college by poverty and the lack of LEA and other grant support. Details of the strategic plans were published by the FEFC this week, following the biggest survey so far of colleges by the council.
Principals and directors cited these two issues as the key reason why many will yet again fail to meet their curriculum and student expansion objectives.
The evidence will fuel fears for the future. The coming year is the last of the Government's pledged expansion programme, where colleges were guaranteed at least 15 per cent more cash for a 25 per cent expansion in students. An FEFC report shows that, despite student numbers nationally now topping 3.1 million, it represents an increase of only 21 per cent.
Next year, high-spending colleges will be hit harder than ever by a funding formula designed gradually to eliminate extreme differences on spending on like courses around the country.
But with the current expansion phase over, and ever-tightening public spending constraints, colleges have been given firm hints by the Treasury and Department for Education to expect a period of "consolidation".
Many college principals now privately admit that large-scale redundancies are likely unless they can find even greater efficiency savings elsewhere, and win more of the contracts for training from industry and the Training and Enterprise Councils.
But the failure to take up college-based training places for employees is another factor which hit colleges hard last year, the strategic plans reveal. The FEFC report shows that slow growth is still expected in areas such as agriculture, construction and engineering.
Colleges have just three weeks to respond to the report and - for those with poor financial prospects - to get their plans in order. Many plans which have been approved have only just scraped through. Sir William said that in around 70 per cent of colleges, plans appeared "relatively sound".