that the income of FE colleges grew from pound;3 billion in 1993 to a high of pound;7.5 billion in 2011, but has since been in decline. "There will be more public spending cuts over the next few years," he said. "A lot of college income is dependent on government, and that income will continue to fall.
"That means more change in the sector and more acute challenges. Do we have smaller colleges or fewer colleges? We will still be there but we will be different."
Andrew Harden, the University and College Union's (UCU) national official for FE, also voiced fears about what the next five years could bring.
"If [the government] doesn't reverse the current cuts and put more funding in, things will get more and more difficult, not just in terms of industrial relations but social cohesion," he said. "Put simply, [ministers] are going to struggle with policies like getting people back to work if they don't put more money into FE. You can't grow the economy with a dumbed-down workforce."
Mr Harden warned that colleges were already struggling with staff recruitment and retention problems, especially in subjects such as English and maths, and said this would continue unless additional funds were provided.
"FE also provides a second chance for people to turn their lives around," said Mr Harden. "Take away those opportunities and you will have a generation of people who have no routes out of poverty. They will get angry, and that will have an effect on social cohesion."
UCU members were prepared to fight to protect their jobs in the event of further cuts, Mr Harden said. Earlier this year, the union ruled out national strike action over a pay dispute with the AoC but said it would develop a national approach to local negotiations with individual colleges.
Unite and fight
However, there are signs that the challenging situation could encourage former enemies to put aside their differences. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, the sector joined forces to oppose the recent 24 per cent cut to adult FE funding, with more than 35,000 people signing a petition to reverse the move. Sector bodies, from the 157 Group and Gazelle Colleges to the Unison and Unite unions, backed the initiative.
Mr Harden said he hoped this spirit of unity would continue: "When it comes to fighting to save people's jobs, there's no compromise, but there's an even bigger picture where the interests of AoC and our members are one and the same. We will continue to try to unite the sector."
Mr Gravatt agreed. "People have differences of opinions over resources and decisions, but I think that's sensible," he said. "FE is not a particularly homogenous sector and it's not a straightforward thing to get a unified voice. But we need a unified voice where there are issues we agree on, to explain what colleges do and why they really matter."
He added that he was "optimistic" about the ability of colleges to adapt and thrive over the next few years.
"There are definitely things colleges can do within the current context," he said. "Some are doing that already, at home and overseas. It's about working out what capability a college has.
"I'm optimistic that people running colleges are as capable now as they have ever been."
`We're entering a brave new world'
Simon Andrews, who took over as principal of Stockport College last month, says the sector has an uncertain future but new opportunities lie ahead.
"It's important to acknowledge these are difficult times," he adds. "Colleges need to develop and change in accordance with the new landscape. There's no point hanging on to how things used to be."
Mr Andrews has made it his goal to develop Stockport into one of the country's leading FE colleges after a turbulent few years. Ofsted downgraded it from outstanding to inadequate after an inspection in 2013. FE commissioner Dr David Collins subsequently found "significant" weaknesses in leadership. An interim principal was appointed and the college's overall grade increased to requires improvement in December.
But more tough decisions are needed: about 150 redundancies will have to be made to help trim pound;5 million from the college's annual budget.
"We are entering a new world, with new demands and requirements; I'm going to position Stockport College to maximise all the benefits from this brave new world," Mr Andrews says.