Labour has pledged a massive revival of college day-release schemes and the abolition of restrictions on the time that unemployed people can spend studying.
It is part of the Pounds 1.4 billion employment package pledged by shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown at the Labour party annual conference this week, to be funded through a windfall tax on private utilities. But immediately after his announcement, colleges were asking where the cash would come for their part of the deal.
Tax breaks of Pounds 75 a week will be paid to private employers who take on under-25s who have been out of work for six months, provided they guarantee day release for recognised FE courses. Similarly, young people in the non-profit voluntary sector would get a Pounds 20-a-week top-up on their benefits.
But the "windfall" will be consumed by the employer tax breaks and extra allowances to help 700,000 18 to 24-year-olds back into work in the first year of a Labour government.
There would be nothing left for colleges which need Pounds 700 million to cope with the expected growth of up to 22 per cent in student numbers.
Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges, welcomed the initiative. "Mr Brown is talking serious money and we would like to see the colour of it at the earliest opportunity. One third of colleges face serious cash pressures and it is getting worse."
Bryan Davies, Labour's FHE spokesman, said Mr Brown's proposals were still in outline form. "We have not developed the strategy precisely on how to utilise the resources yet.
"We are on target to produce a paper at the turn of the year."
He stressed that employers would be expected to help fund day-release through Labour's proposed contracts or "learning accounts" which commit all employers and trainees to invest cash and time.
College heads welcome the commitment, but say they are frustrated by the continued delay to the long-promised FHE policy paper. They are worried that they will find themselves in yet more efficiency drives that have already left 58 colleges in dire financial straits.
Some question whether the return to day release is the answer to Britain's training ills.
Total numbers of students on day release have dropped by around 10 per cent a year in the Nineties, from 323,000 in 1991-92 to 258,000 in 1993-94, figures from the Department for Education and Employment show.
Colleges are finding various alternatives, including open learning, workplace programmes, weekend classes and short courses.
Sally Freeborn, manager at Cornwall College - which is pioneering an industry-based alternative to day release - said the issues demand national attention: "No one has produced research or held a conference to look at the problem. It is possible to adapt, but no one's asking what succeeds or fails."
At Wolverhampton's Bilston Community College, day-release enrolments have almost halved this term. Weekend enrolments are now soaring as the college finds alternatives to day release.
Chief executive Keith Wymer said: "I don't think day release as such is ever coming back.
"There are not as many firms around as there used to be, and those that we have tend to be smaller and less labour-intensive."
Colleges in areas hit by the recession like Cornwall and Bilston, were affected early on by the problems. They warn that others could pay a heavier price as the wave gathers momentum.
The FEFC's figure for "employer-led part-time" enrolments in 1994-95, which also includes block release, was 418,000, 7 per cent down on the previous year. An inquiry was launched by the FEFC and DFEE, and a report is expected by Christmas.
Roger McClure, FEFC finance director, said: "There's nothing inherently virtuous about day release. It's a question of whether the practical and knowledge elements of learning are both being provided in ways that are most suitable to students and their employers."
A draft survey by The Engineering Training Authority shows that 73 per cent of employers still send some workers on day or block release courses. Taken with other figures, this suggests that firms are not abandoning day release altogether, simply sending fewer trainees. Awarding bodies such as City and Guilds say day release will recover.
Andrew Sich, marketing director at City and Guilds, said: "Once you've won the argument that training is a good thing, then many may once again accept that it's best to concentrate all the activity on one day a week." At Reading College of Arts and Technology day release student numbers have fallen by 2,000 in five years despite efforts to adapt programmes.