That the FE sector is having to tighten its belt is not in itself enormous news. But a report this week published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) lays bare the full extent of the cuts faced by post-16 colleges.
The highly respected think-tank concludes that the 16-19 sector faces a real-terms cut of around 20 per cent by 201415. In 201112 alone, it is facing a 4.1 per cent drop in spending. For FE and sixth-form colleges, the figure rises to more than 6 per cent.
"It seems clear," the IFS's Trends in Education and Schools Spending report argues, that FE is being hit by a "disproportionately large cut". In the same period, school funding is being reduced by just 1 per cent.
And that is not all. "These cuts will take place," the report adds, "at a time when the education leaving age is due to start rising (from 16 to 18) from 2013, which is likely to make the pressures on individual providers even greater."
The discrepancy between pre-16 and post-16 marks a significant policy shift from the previous Labour administration. While Labour increased FE spending more quickly than schools funding - between 1998 and 2009, FE funding went up by 7.7 per cent, compared with 5.6 per cent in schools - the Coalition has instead opted to afford headteachers a degree of protection that college principals can only dream of.
The report echoes the concerns raised by Association of Colleges chief executive Martin Doel. "In our conversations with Government, we have been stressing the impact of the unintended consequences of a raft of policy and funding changes on 16 to 19 year-old students and their families," he said. And while colleges are trying to mitigate the funding cuts, he concedes that "it will not be possible to protect them entirely from cuts of this magnitude".
There appears to be little doubt that it is schools that are now the chosen ones under the Coalition. A Department for Education spokesman was quick to point out that the schools budget is actually increasing by #163;3.6 billion over the next four years. There is no mention of FE, which appears to be paying the price through what NUT general secretary Christine Blower describes as "particularly savage cuts".
"Schools, colleges and education services are already feeling the impact of the cuts," she said. "Many teachers have already lost their jobs, and the Government is attacking teacher pay and pensions. Students in sixth-form colleges are already seeing increases in their class sizes."
Ms Blower's worries are shared by ATL deputy general secretary Martin Johnson. "Over the past 10 years, the previous government managed to raise spending on education to the international average as a proportion of national income, yet now, in just four years all that progress will be lost," he said.
While ministers are fond of proclaiming that FE and sixth-form colleges are a key part of the education landscape, the figures starkly reveal that they seem to be becoming the poor relations. Allowing colleges to at least keep pace with schools funding would send out the message that ministers' rhetoric is backed up by their policies.
But with the trend set to continue until at least the next general election, this appears to be nothing more than a distant dream.
REAL-TERMS SPENDING CUTS IN EDUCATION BY 201415
1% - Schools
20% - FE and sixth-form colleges
40% - Higher education
13% - Overall public spending on education.