The number of college principals who believe the Tories have anything to offer further education can be counted on one hand. If principals' views are reflected in the May 5 general election result, Labour and the Liberal Democrats will be neck-and-neck. The Conservatives would be wiped out.
Following publication of all the party manifestos, we asked which offered the best policies for FE (see FE Focus front page). The swing is dramatic.
Four years ago, college polls put the Tories a poor second - but still ahead of the Lib Dems.
Why the significant shift? The Lib Dems' surge is understandable since they pledge to close the funding gap between schools and colleges and boost other FE fortunes. But why is Labour doing so well when the current three-year spending round looks like plunging college-based adult education into crisis?
There are two reasons, neither of them Labour's doing. First, college leaders we spoke to after the poll did not think the Conservatives had any policies on FE. Second, memories of austerity budgets and failed promises after incorporation in 1993 are still too painful. Typical remarks from principals and managers were: "The Conservatives cannot be trusted" and "However bad it may get, it was so much worse then."
The surge in Lib Dem support is not a protest vote. It is a statement of need. Whoever wins power on May 5 should recognise how relatively inexpensive it is to buy the confidence and support of colleges. The Association of Colleges put the global need at pound;1.8 billion. The Lib Dems say pound;330 million is a good start - and college leaders have responded well to this.
There is another factor, which emerges in general anecdotes and hard evidence to the national inquiry into adult learning. Many managers believe that the Learning and Skills Council has mismanaged the distribution of cash. Everyone knows there are tough times ahead, but this was meant to be a transitional year with reasonable cash now and a warning to tighten belts for the future.
Instead, as the indicative budgets for colleges published this week by the LSC reveal, deep cuts must be made now.
The council has not had it easy. It has had too many inflexible demands placed on it, such as the 16-18 funding guarantees, while having to deal with uncertainty over adults skills learning. The buck rests with ministers, who need to spell out their demands more clearly and fund them accordingly.