Small specialist colleges in Scotland could be forced out of business by changes in the way Government grants are calculated.
Chris Nixon, principal of Oatridge College of Agriculture in West Lothian, fears that the education and training they provide will also be lost. "If the work of small colleges goes, it will not be replaced," he says.
Oatridge was one of a dozen colleges which had grants cut by the maximum 5 per cent in the recent controversial funding allocations by the Scottish Office. It has 200 full-time and 800 part-time students and is the smallest mainland institution to be hit so hard.
But Mr Nixon says that in recent years the college has diversified from agricultural courses to cover many land-based activities, such as landscaping and horse business management. "We are no longer mono-discipline."
The two other colleges which specialise in land-based studies fared slightly better - Elmwood in Fife had its grant raised by just under 3 per cent while the Barony in Dumfries, suffered a 1.8 per cent cut.
Elmwood is considerably bigger than Oatridge, and achieved a 14.92 per cent increase in its SUMS (the student unit of measurement system by which student activity is calculated.) Oatridge's figure fell by .63 per cent. The Barony, smaller than Oatridge, saw a .42 per cent drop in its SUMS.
At Elmwood Norval Black, the principal, points out that land-based courses account for only half of the college's activities. The rest of the work is of a kind found throughout FE - motor vehicle, secretarial, courses in caring.
He added that when self-governing status came three years ago "We immediately widened our portfolio", with particular emphasis on advanced-level work.
Although the Government has since put a cap on advanced work in FE, the college on the alert for new opportunities, with a national as well as local market for its agricultural courses and even an international appeal to its flagship activity - greenkeeping. A golf course is under construction and the green-keeping students include eight Icelanders.
Mr Nixon says that the financial viability of small colleges is being threatened by increasingly bureaucratic demands by Government for data on student numbers and college performance at a time when core funding has been cut. Cuts put small colleges at greater risk as the lost cash will be a greater proportion of a small institution's overall budget and reductions are harder to find.
"Colleges such as Oatridge are small because of the specialist training need which they meet," he says.
"If they are not allowed to survive, the specialist education and training which they provide will also disappear. If merged with larger colleges their specialist purpose will be subsumed by the general objectives of the larger institution."
However, the Bathgate-based West Lothian College, the most obvious merger candidate, was also docked 5 per cent in the latest grants round. Dumfries and Galloway College, Barony's nearest neighbour, was cut by 2.78 per cent.
Another illustration of the seriousness of the long-predicted threat to small colleges came last week with the announcement that Borders College, with 900 full-time and 3,700 part-time students, is to make seven lecturers redundant.
John Sellars, chief officer of the Association of Scottish Colleges, says that Oatridge is well respected in the industry and was well served by Lothian Regional Council which used to run it. Under the newly-introduced Government funding formula, colleges which were comparatively generously funded by their local authorities are now feeling the pinch.
While agriculture attracts more funding than business studies does, for example, Oatridge has an extensive farm to run and halls of residence.
Mr Sellars says: "These are costs which other colleges don't have and the fundamental question is whether we have the funding formula right for such colleges. Oatridge is very different from James Watt, or from Aberdeen College."
(James Watt college, Greenock, with 2,000 full-time and 7,500 part-time students, had the largest funding boost of all colleges - 10.41 per cent. Aberdeen, Scotland's largest college with 3,800 full-time and 13,000 part-time students, has taken over the former Clinterty Agricultural College.) Mr Sellars' doubts over whether the Government's funding formula is right for small colleges raise a fundamental question which strikes at the heart of the current funding ethos. He says: "Is it in fact possible to have the same funding model for a sector that is so diverse?"