There once was a man forced to make efficiency savings within his business and domestic life.
On his final visit to the pub to explain why he wouldn't be in for a while, he ordered a bottle or two to tide him over. He explained that he had been examining all areas of his budget to see where economies could be affected. His donkey, he felt, was eating far too much, and would be starting a period of serious retrenchment.
Some time later, the man returned to the pub. Asked about the donkey, he said tetchily that his programme had been only partially successful. "I'd nearly got him to live on no food at all, but the bugger went and died on me."
I was reminded of this tale at a recent meeting of the Sixth Form Colleges' Association (APVIC), while it was being addressed by James Paice, further education minister.
Mr Paice delivered a speech full of praise for the colleges' expansion, entrepreneurialism and quality, and would have done well to quit while he was winning. Instead, he agreed to take questions.
A principal asked at what stage in our economy drive we might expect to find quality inescapably reduced. His predecessor, Tim Boswell, would have expressed his understanding for the questioner, and tried to put the difficulties we face into a wider context.
This would not have satisfied his questioner, but it was, after all, not a question to which there was an answer, unless it is, "After the next election, I hope". We would have formed the impression that Tim Boswell was batting for the sector within the wider context.
James Paice satisfied himself by replying that there are always economies to be made. Indeed there are, and some of the buggers die in the process.
We think that we have done all we can to meet the requirements of the 1992 Education Act. Since then, the number of full-time students has grown by 50 per cent, and we have a fast-growing part-time adult cohort. We have contributed to the National Targets both in Foundation and Lifetime Learning, and we have pioneered full-time and part-time general national vocational qualification at all three levels.
We have found the time, too, to maintain most of the activities which have given the college its particular flavour.
Our students perform in pantomimes, plays, concerts and rock galas; they play team sports; they have also travelled extensively through Europe as part of their studies. They go out on work experience and voluntary service. They run their own social and fund-raising activities and take on real projects for business and the local community.
Our staff write textbooks and teaching materials, are invited to lecture and join national steering groups; they have advised the BBC on their Schools' Programmes on GNVQ; they take part in the Teacher Placement scheme and have developed local business partnerships. One teacher has been awarded the MBE for his service to education, and particularly for his role as equal opportunities coordinator.
We provide for students with mobility or motor difficulties, impaired vision or hearing, linguistic problems or other learning difficulties. They are given access to the mainstream courses and destinations open to other students.
In order to introduce or maintain these activities, we have barely increased the teaching force. Nor has the number of support staff grown as it should in order to cope with increased administration and student numbers since incorporation. But examination results have improved, while course costs have been reduced.
The college day is longer and teacher contact time is greater. The increased expenditure on equipment, especially on computers, barely allows us to keep pace with the increase in numbers and demand.
This donkey is lean and remains fit, only flagging occasionally when the hill seems particularly steep. And still the load is increased and the food supply is reduced.
It's a willing, even an obstinate donkey, which doesn't easily admit defeat. But one day it will kick off part of its load in order to keep going. And the next day another part, and so on.
What will happen when the business falls off because customers don't want this reduced delivery, but would prefer the full load the donkey used to bring? The food supply will be further reduced. And one day the donkey will drop dead.
And if all the popular and hard-working donkeys die, at what price the survival of the business?
Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin College, Croydon