Colleges need a huge investment in buildings if they are to achieve ambitious post-16 targets set by the Government, Mark Haysom, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, has warned.
At the end of his first 100 days in office, the man who has made the most sweeping reforms to the council to date has also made it clear he is willing to be tough with ministers.
"All indications are that the CSR (comprehensive spending review) will be tough," he said. But there were existing government promises that had to be met.
Alan Johnson, further and higher education minister, this week confirmed that the sector was facing tough choices.
In an interview for the TES Learning Reforms special report, he said the priority had to be unskilled adults, and those wanting to study further "will have to make a contribution".
But Mr Haysom points to a more fundamental cost. To attract paying students and trainees, colleges need better buildings.
"Great buildings equals great education," he said. "There has been a major initiative for schools (the pound;21 billion initiative Building Schools for the Future). But where is FE in this? We have to make our case." The LSC estimates that it would cost pound;5bn to renew the estate.
"It has taken a decade to improve half the current FE estate. By the time we improve the rest of it, what will it be, another 10 years? That's madness."
Walking around the colleges, he said, it was clear that some are not fit for purpose. It was not enough to train teachers to teach, he said.
"If we are to encourage more people to learn, part of that has to be having the facilities to attract them in through the door."
A Department for Education and Skills spokesman said that since April 2001 more than pound;1.6bn had been spent on capital projects. Cash allocated to the LSC, which amounted to pound;231m in 2002, will rise to more than pound;400m by 2005-6.
"We are committed to a long-term approach to redeveloping the FE buildings.
Our key priorities are centres of vocational excellence, structural change and to improve choice for learners and employers," he said.
FE Editor's Comment 4