Low-funded colleges who want to speed up moves to a level funding playing field were told their demands could bankrupt high-funded neighbours.
A new pressure group formed to protest at unequal funding won merely an assurance at a meeting with Further Education Funding Council leaders that its voice would be heard during a review of spending.
The group, dubbed the 74 Group after the number signing a letter calling for change, claims low-funded colleges are suffering badly because the funding formula cushions colleges which are already generously funded.
It wants faster convergence - the process by which the FEFC is bringing together the funding of all colleges to a common rate, eliminating differences dating back to the days of local authority control.
But the colleges won little ground from the FEFC. The council privately fears that hopes of securing more Treasury cash would be put in jeopardy by any suggestion that the sector's spiralling financial problems could be solved by redistributing fast-shrinking funds.
The FEFC has now confirmed that the value of the funding units colleges claim for growth could be reduced from Pounds 16.40 to as little as Pounds 12. 50 in 1997-98 - a step which will place added pressure on college finances. Threats that other growth money, the so-called demand-led element, would be axed have been lifted for the time being, though the value of those units is also set to shrink.
Chief executive Sir William Stubbs told the 74 Group that taking money away any faster from high-funded colleges would create a serious risk of destabilising and even bankrupting those with most perilous finances.
Rumours of imminent closure or forced merger of one or more colleges are rife at present in the sector, with the FEFC known to be reviewing post-16 provision in Yorkshire and Humberside amid fears over the future of a number of institutions.
However, the council is also aware that low-funded colleges, which it acknowledges are generally lean and tightly managed, now claim they can find no more fat to cut highlights the extent of the funding crisis.
The FEFC is due to begin a fundamental review of the funding methodology in the autumn and set new targets for convergence.
A spokeswoman said it was "more or less on track" to meet its first target, set when colleges were incorporated in 1993. It aimed to bring all colleges within 10 per cent of a target funding level within three years.
The 74 Group, led by Stamford College principal Andrew Middleton, has called for "equity funding" to be in place by August 1997, but admits that August 1998 is a more realistic demand.
Mr Middleton said the group had had a fair hearing, but admitted it had won no commitment.
He said: "What can be the case for unequal funding except for concern about speed of change? There has been three years for that to take place. Five years I believe should be quite enough."
As it prepares to review the methodology, the FEFC is known to be resistant to any pressure for "special case funding" - for example, suggestions that colleges in particular geographical areas are inherently more expensive.