Colleges have launched a major attack on the "unjust and unsustainable" cuts to funding for 16- to 18-year-olds, claiming that students are being short-changed and courses are under threat.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) used its annual conference in Birmingham this week to intensify its campaign for fairer funding for post-16 education, putting pressure on government ministers and lobbying opposition politicians.
In his conference speech, AoC president Richard Atkins called on the next government to halt the "swathe" of cuts that have hit the further education sector in the past five years. He said it was unfair that a student taking A-levels would currently have 22 per cent less spent on their education than when they were studying for GCSEs at 16. He also criticised the government for only protecting funding for 5- to 16-year-olds.
"[Skills minister] Nick Boles is misguided when he says that the early years in education are the most important," Mr Atkins told delegates. "16-19 is a key developmental phase. It's when so many young people start to choose their career path for the future.
"Students aged 16-18 are being short-changed," he said. "The cuts that have been made are unjust and unsustainable. So, let's have fairness. Let's have a level playing field and let's review how we divide up our limited resources fairly between schools, colleges and universities."
Mr Atkins, principal of Exeter College, told TES that colleges had experienced a "tougher time" than any other part of the education system under this government.
Since 2010, the adult skills budget has been reduced by 35 per cent and funding for 18-year-olds has been cut by 17.5 per cent. However, the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 60 per cent of the cuts in public spending are yet to come.
"We know that the next government will have to make spending cuts, but we are asking for the policy of ring-fencing 5-16 education to end," said Mr Atkins. "5-18 is a publicly funded education phase, yet we decide to cut it dramatically at 16. Everybody is saying the same about the 16-18 phase - we can't keep cutting it at this rate."
He warned that if the cuts continued, colleges would be forced to reduce the number of courses they offer, meaning that participation in higher education (HE) would suffer and there would be less social mobility.
Some colleges are using their autonomous status to make links and partnerships with local businesses; others have created their own businesses to subsidise learning. The Manchester College, for example, aims to become the UK's largest integrated education and skills group within the next two years with the launch of several new brands. Chief executive John Thornhill said: "We know we can't be reliant on government funding alone, so our approach is to develop different income streams to compensate."
However, Mr Atkins said that only government funding could fully support learners.
"Employers are not going to subsidise the education and training of 800,000 full-time 16- to 18-year-old students across England," he said. "The government is the only realistic source of funding and I think we have every right to ask ministers not to apply cuts to that group and single them out."
The AoC also used the three-day conference to launch its manifesto for the 2015 general election. It offers 10 recommendations that, if implemented, would enable FE colleges and their students to "thrive and succeed". These include better careers advice, continued autonomy for colleges, more power to award HE qualifications, and tailor-made maths and English qualifications for vocational learners. It also calls for "pre-apprenticeships" to prepare young people for work-based learning.
"Traineeships should be converted into pre-apprenticeship training, specifically created to prepare 16- and 17-year-olds for a full apprenticeship," the AoC says. "This training should last two years, be set at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and include the soft skills so desperately needed by employers."
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: "All young people deserve the opportunity to build the skills to succeed in modern Britain, which is why the government is spending more than pound;7 billion this year on education and training places for 16- to 19-year-olds. This will help to ensure that more young people are better prepared than ever before for the world of work or further study."