Yet again, colleges and other providers are being penalised for their success. After all the pre-summer hype over the extra pound;130 million from the Government, it is dawning on managers that 2004-5 will be the tightest financial year since 1996-7.
This is partly because of the cumulative costs of record-level student recruitment. Also, there is a voracious cuckoo in the learning and skills nest - the 16-19 sector - which consumes all spare cash.
Unless more careful thought is given to the use of available cash, the most needy - those not in employment, education or training - will starve. As we report on page 1, Entry to Employment (E2E) is a case in point.
It is a Government flagship initiative aimed at 180,000 young adults with blighted lives, who have often been in care, prison or have a history of long-term truancy. The pilot E2E showed remarkable signs of success, giving tailor-made courses in training centres, colleges and the workplace.
Rolled out nationally at a cost of pound;240m, it reaches 30,000 people in its first year. But the Learning and Skills Council immediately clipped the fledgling's wings, cutting the maximum recommended time from two years to 22 weeks and leaving the budget at pound;240m when it should have been almost doubled. In consequence, young people with the most challenging long-term difficulties are least likely to get an E2E place.
A similar edict was issued over the franchising of FE courses to private trainers. This once highly discredited scheme has cleaned up its act and, while some dodgy practices may slip through, quality controls are very effective.
At its best, franchising has produced excellent partnerships between colleges and employers. It was, therefore, surprising to find the LSC limiting college spending on such work to 5 per cent of budget.
After a furore from training providers, LSC national office insisted this was not a maximum but a "steer". But local councils see it as anything but a steer. They received it as an edict and are acting accordingly.
There is an urgent need for LSC national office to look critically at what local councils are doing and to be precise in its guidance. Otherwise, what faith there is in politicians to get things right will be seriously undermined.