Disadvantaged and disabled people are to be encouraged to go to college in a huge expansion programme to be funded out of the #163;725 million bonanza for further education announced by the Government last week.
A #163;40m programme of schemes to widen participation of excluded groups will be funded in full. Colleges will be renovated to improve disabled access.
Massive new investment in IT will also give the sector a national communications network to rival the national learning grid for schools and the Joint Academic Network for universities.
David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council,said much additional expansion was made possible by an extra #163;100m for capital spending promised for two years' time.
"This is funding beyond the two-year Comprehensive Spending Review settlement, and a very generous one, " he told The TES. "The whole package is excellent news for the sector. We can make major progress on widening participation."
The two-year package was widely welcomed, but there were doubts over what the figures added up to.
Uncertainties that are commonly expressed by colleges include how the plans to delay convergence (the elimination of extreme differences in spending) by one year will be implemented. The policy of slowing down convergence is still not universally supported by colleges.
The major question facing the sector is how many of the new students will be full-time and how many part-time. No details were available as The TES went to press.
However, there is an expectation that FTEs (full-time equivalent students) will increase by 60,000 in 1999 (a 5.5 per cent increase). The plan that overall FE numbers will increase by 700,000 by 2002 is considered by many to be a tall order.
David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, promised that there would be more money for the third funding year but declined to say more. Nevertheless, it will need to be substantial. Estimates from college registrars suggest that at least #163;570m would be needed in the third year just to stand still.
Student support and maintenance grants are another potential financial timebomb. Mr Blunkett's decision to pilot education maintenance allowances of up to #163;40 a week for disadvantaged students could prove costly.
More than half of all students already in FE are suffering hardship (see charts below). These problems will grow as more excluded groups are recruited.
The Local Government Association welcomed the improved support and extended grants to school sixth-formers.
Graham Lane, LGA education chair and head of the FE Student Support Advisory Group, said: "The Government has made a good start with the announcement of expanded access funds and the decision to pilot maintenance allowances. "
But David Gibson, incoming chief executive of the Association of Colleges,said: "We appreciate that the Government will need time for the pilot but we expect ministers to fund the implications of their findings within two years."
John Brennan, AOC director of development, said: "If the pilots demonstrate that offering reasonable levels of allowance do offer students incentives to stay on, then the figure required across the country will be around #163;750 million."