The desire of so many principals to have the Government ring-fence cash for college staff salaries is a sign of how desperate they are - and powerless - to solve the low-pay crisis.
Many of the uncertainties over budgets that came to dominate further education since incorporation in 1993 have been overcome in recent years.
However, as our survey on page 1 reveals, pay is the one crisis that principals have been least able to solve.
The survey helps explain the overwhelming response to the Natfhe strike call and mass demonstration that paralysed part of Birmingham at the Association of Colleges annual conference last week. It also explains why so many principals were sympathetic.
Great gains have been made in many areas. Few colleges face financial collapse as they did under the Tories. David Bell, chief inspector for Ofsted, has testified to big improvements in performance and quality.
Ministers acknowledge the huge gains made in student retention and achievement, particularly among socially excluded groups.
But principals know they are weak when it comes to salaries. They lack the cash to adequately reward good staff who stay or to retain excellent lecturers who quit for better pay and conditions elsewhere. This emerges more forcefully than ever in confidential responses to our survey.
The AoC is in a difficult situation. It must negotiate annually with the unions for its members but can only recommend acceptance. Even if the association wished to, it could not impose a settlement on legally independent corporations.
Principals despair of the lack of funds, flexibility and scope in government grants to meet even modest pay settlements. It was the volume of concern this year that triggered the FE Focus survey, to which 40 per cent of colleges in England replied almost instantly.
As the researchers for the survey conclude in their report (www.fefocus.co.uk): "Whether a principal is in favour of nationally agreed pay arrangements or opposed to ring-fencing staff salaries, when it comes to the future, disillusionment dominates."
Evidence shows poor pay cannot be explained away in terms of poor management. Many colleges are still trapped in a pattern of inherited under-funding. Hard-pressed but successful staff ask: "Where is the long-promised reward for our efforts?"
Principals are rightly telling ministers: "We have gone on long enough doing everything you ask of us. Pay is a problem you must help to solve."