There was no standing ovation for Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard this week after she delivered the keynote speech at the last major gathering of the FE world before polling day.
Instead there was quiet muttering from principals as Mrs Shephard praised colleges, exhorted them to do better, expand and raise achievement - but do it without any significant increase in cash.
The Further Education Development Agency's Spotlight conference at London's Caf Royal this week was probably the last chance the parties' front bench teams had to address the sector before the general election is called, giving a rare glimpse as Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats made their pitch for the college vote.
Mrs Shephard was full of praise for colleges' achievements; their expansion, the quality of their teaching, their management and their responsiveness since they were freed from local authority control. "Colleges have shown themselves more than worthy of that independence," she said, "Students and trainees are benefiting from increased opportunity and greater choice. "
But there was a rub. The Government was committed to growth, she said, but there would be no increase in state funding to pay for that growth.
But her speech, with no policy proposals, was in stark contrast to her opposition counterparts.
Labour's further and higher education spokesman Bryan Davies used the conference to outline his manifesto for the sector.
And Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster outlined his party's well-known policies for improving college funding and student support, while promising more initiatives to come.
Mr Davies has been unwilling to commit Labour to increasing college funding, although principals have been promised a slice of the party's windfall tax on the private utilities.
He instead positioned Labour as supportive of professional lecturers, announcing plans for a review of FE staffing, a return to national pay bargaining and the integration of FE lecturers into the proposed General Teaching Council.
But he appeased the quality lobby, with the announcement of proposed targets for FE lecturers' training. He said: "The standards of teaching in further education, as well as the professional standing of further education lecturers, must be lifted if the sector is to play its full part in national renewal."
Mr Davies was not specific about what qualifications lecturers will be required to hold, but he stressed that new lecturers would have to pass a professional qualification of some kind within a set period of starting work. He expressed concern about teaching staff with very narrow qualifications, and warned about the possible effects of employing part-time lecturers - a double pitch to staff concerned about the rise of so-called technical trainers and colleges' increasing reliance on freelance staff.
Don Foster, for the Liberal Democrats, offered more money for colleges, in the shape of a slice of the party's much vaunted penny on income tax.
He promised a breaking down of the barriers between the vocational and academic worlds with a full credit transfer system in all post-14 education - abolishing A-levels and GNVQs with them.
A new tier of regional government should take responsibility for FE strategic planning and there would be a two per cent training levy on company payrolls.
And he lambasted the Government for the crisis over college expansion funding.
He said: " The FE sector is a time bomb waiting to explode; facing a crisis that is inevitable if colleges continue to be run by a market-driven approach and continue to be underfunded."
The main parties set out their policy stalls
Below is a summary of the positions of the three largest political parties,as indicated in their representatives' speeches to the conference.
Bryan Davies MP, shadow further amp; higher education ministerLabour believes that a coherent, rationalised framework for the recruitment, induction and professional development of further education teaching staff is now required.
While over 60 per cent of full-time teachers in further education have a recognised teaching qualification, more than half of those recruited to colleges do not possess one on entry and only a minority have qualified teacher status. Many lecturers also lack the key skills which are central to students' learning programmes and which are mandatory in GNVQs.
A Labour government will want to encourage colleges to make good progress in upgrading management skills.
In the face of significant changes, teachers have maintained good standards. Nevertheless, the Chief Inspector's report noted that over the past three years there has remained a persistent eight per cent of lessons which are unsatisfactory. This small proportion of weak teaching must be addressed.
First, we will consider targets for the accreditation of new entrants in further education teaching.
We will give consideration to specific targets for the accreditation of new entrants in further education teaching. For those entrants who do not possess an appropriate qualification, there should be a specified period after entry to teaching within which professional recognition must be obtained.
Second, we will review staffing issues. I cannot promise new resources but I am concerned that we address the situation if the increased employment of part-time staff leads to a decline in standards.
Low morale cannot be the basis for the future success of the sector. To secure an end to conflict, localised fragmentation and disruption, Labour will seek a return to a national bargaining framework for FE lecturers. That does not mean a return to the Silver Book. Colleges need flexibility.
Third, we will ensure that key skills attainment forms a part of appropriate pre-service and in-service FE teaching qualifications.
Finally, we will move - over an appropriate period of time - to integrate FE lecturers into the structure of our proposed General Teaching Council."
Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment"The challenges of the future are:
* to manage growth within available funding. We remain committed to growth in student numbers, to increased participation and to wider access. But these developments will need to be carefully managed.
* to ensure that a higher percentage of students achieve their qualification goal.
* to provide opportunities for lifetime learning.
* to be responsive and flexible and to continue to widen access .
* to ensure that staff are well prepared professionally and engage in continuing professional development.
* to ensure that all providers of education and training become even more self-critical.
In conclusion, let me reaffirm the importance of the FE sector. The provision made must meet the market need, must be of high quality, must be reasonably priced and must be readily accessible. The FE sector can meet these challenges."
Don Foster, Lib Dem education and employment spokesman
"Our proposals tackle head-on two key problems facing us - student poverty and gross underfunding of the institutions - and they provide a framework for lifelong learning.
We would extend access, provide equitable support for all FE and HE students, eliminate the academic vocational divide.
* Increased investment in education - paid for, if necessary, by a penny on income tax.
* A funding boost for the FE sector, even though there is a limit to the increased funding that can come through general taxation. Employers and the country should continue to bear the largest proportion of cost. However, those who benefit personally from further or higher education, or both, should pay back some of the cost when they can.
* Each person over 18 would be able to register at the Learning Bank by opening an individual learning account to which the Government, employer and the individual would contribute. We would also introduce a 2 per cent remissible education and training levy on companies. "
The full text of the three major political speeches to the FEDA conference will be available in the Further Education section of