Further education faces years of turbulence as financial pressures drive radical change in the way the sector operates, college human resources managers heard this week.
Reduced state funding is the "new norm" and providers will have to develop new strategies in order to survive and flourish, the Association of Colleges' human resources (HR) conference heard on Wednesday.
Lucy McLynn, a specialist in employment law and partner at law firm Bates Wells and Braithwaite, told a breakout session at the conference in Birmingham that change was going to happen whether FE liked it or not.
Speaking to FE Focus before the conference, Ms McLynn said: "My personal feeling is that there is a rocky road ahead for FE. It is not just a question of trimming figures, but of making radical change in terms of how colleges operate. This is the new norm and the sector has to be ready to deal with that."
But Ms McLynn, whose firm does business with many colleges, said she feared that some in FE were opposed to change.
"The issue in many colleges is that people want to do things the way they have always been done," she said. "Obviously, FE is a strongly unionised sector and there is understandable resistance to compulsory redundancy. A strong union is a challenge."
Ms McLynn's speech came as the University and College Union led members on strike at 11 London colleges in protest at a national budget cut of pound;340 million and resulting job losses.
Richard McEwan, joint branch secretary at Tower Hamlets College, said most teaching staff were on strike, although the college remained open.
"The political lobbying that principals conduct behind closed doors needs to come right out in public," he said.
Michael Farley, Tower Hamlets' principal, said that he had managed to absorb about pound;1.5 million of the college's pound;3.1 million budget reduction without job losses, but that 42 redundancies were still necessary. He said he would not cut student places.
Evan Williams, employment director at the Association of Colleges (AoC), said industrial action was "unrealistic" and "unfair to students". He said colleges were willing to work with unions on staffing issues.
Julian Gravatt, AoC director of research and development and a speaker at the HR conference, said that while public spending cuts were inevitable, "the sector's voice will be most powerful if unions and employers are allied in collectively advocating for Government investment on behalf of students and staff."