Hundreds of full-time lecturers' jobs are at risk in the Tory heartlands as colleges in Surrey, Kent and Sussex face a wave of redundancies and threaten to pull out of key areas such as prison education.
The full scale of the cuts set to hit the Conservatives' south east stronghold emerged during the week of the annual party conference in Blackpool where college lobby groups sought in vain for reassurances over future funding for further education.
Despite a high profile for education with a range of pledges including nursery vouchers from 1997 and a new national vocational qualification level 5 for headteachers, questions about the fate of FE met a deafening silence, fuelling colleges' fears of a bleak funding future.
According to the latest redundancy figures from the lecturers' union NATFHE, total losses in the south east shire counties alone will be more than 300. And some individual colleges are planning to cut 60 or more jobs.
Colleges including Canterbury College, Kent and Kingsway in London are understood to be planning radical cuts to prison education with the possibility of pulling out completely.
As the scale of cuts being forced on colleges became apparent, the Association for Colleges criticised Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard for failing to address FE funding in her speech to the Blackpool conference.
Chief executive Ruth Gee said the association was "bitterly disappointed" by the omission, and she accused Mrs Shephard of failing to recognise the "dynamic growth" of the sector.
She said: "There was not much in this speech - for anyone." She added Mrs Shephard had failed to answer colleges' concerns over "chronic underfunding" or student fears over completing courses.
However, the Colleges' Employers' Forum this week made clear the pressure for cuts in the sector would continue, with staff cuts inevitable.
Speaking at a conference of college business managers, CEF chief executive Roger Ward predicted FE would have to take a back seat on funding behind vote-pulling schools and universities. He urged colleges to "adopt a business- like approach" and cut staffing costs or face bankruptcy.
NATFHE is still compiling full redundancy figures but early findings include a total of 87 jobs already lost at 13 colleges in the East Midlands, and more than 80 proposed losses in Greater London. A total of 53 full-time posts have already been shed at 11 Northern Irish colleges. Six north- east colleges and eight in the West Midlands are also cutting posts.
NATFHE chief negotiating officer Sue Berryman said the scale of the south-east redundancy figures was unforeseen. She said: "It is quite unprecedented and it means a lot of experienced and committed teachers are getting out."
The conference's FE silence did nothing to dispel fears of a drive to introduce vouchers for all students post-16. A leaked Treasury paper revealed that Chancellor Kenneth Clarke was aggressively in favour of a new system of "learning credits" to reform the Pounds 3 billion 16-19 education and training market.