Ever since Treasury Secretary Paul Boateng's warning last autumn that the "public sector bonanza is over", there has been a constant drip-feed of official statements aimed at preparing colleges for the worst.
Alan Johnson, further and higher education minister, in an interview this week, warns of tough choices ahead as priority is given to adults lacking basic skills. "People who wish to study further will have to make a contribution while we tackle the job of getting 5 million adults qualified to level 2 (GCSE-equivalent), he says." (see 16-page pull-out: TES Learning Reforms).
A fair point. But who will pay to enter the portals of crumbling FE buildings?
Mark Haysom, the new chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, is not impressed - and has no hesitation in telling ministers he wants building improvements that match schools'. He sums it up in four words:
"Great buildings; great education." Failure to repair the homes of FE will undermine the whole learning project, he insists. This is not special pleading from unions or employers but comes from a man appointed with ministers' blessing to run the entire FE estate.
When Education Secretary Charles Clarke launched the huge Success for All project in 2002, he sweetened the pill with a record pound;1.2bn increase in FE funding over three years. But thunderous applause soon faded as colleges discovered just what had to be paid for: national insurance and pension increases swallowed vast amounts before managers could even consider wider reforms.
The extent of the challenge facing colleges and other training providers is comprehensively analysed in this week's TES Learning Reforms special report. From the huge 14-19 initiative and partnerships with schools to higher education expansion and the fight against adult illiteracy, the tasks facing FE are formidable.
What has been achieved already is remarkable, but many reforms are still at pilot stage. Implementing change across the system will cost even more. The Association of Colleges says expansion and the knock-on effects of earlier initiatives will add pound;3bn to the bill (FE Focus, January 16 2004).
They too point to the looming crisis facing college buildings - and estimate that a staggering pound;21bn is needed to bring them up to scratch.
When the 14-19 education partnerships really kick in, what impression will 14-year-old pupils get if they have to endure college buildings that are shabby?
As Mr Haysom rightly points out, it has taken a decade to improve half the current FE estate; we cannot afford to wait yet another decade to repair the rest.