Employment ministers have left colleges in a state of complete confusion over proposals to change the rules on how long people out of work can study without losing benefits.
Plans announced by Employment Minister Ann Widdecombe this week were immediately seized on by Labour's shadow education spokesman David Blunkett as "a reduction that will hit the most vulnerable".
Ministers plan to drop the rule limiting people on benefits to 21 hours' a week "supervised study". Instead, they will allow 16 hours' "guided learning", which is a stricter definition of students' rights under funding arrangements for colleges. It will be open to unemployed people on the Job-Seeker's Allowance for more than three months.
Principals were assured at the annual meeting of the Further Education Funding Council last week that the new, clearer rule, affecting 80,000 people already at college, would stop local benefits offices making arbitrary decisions about what constituted a part-time course.
There have been repeated outcries about the wide variation in policies around the country. One office stopped benefits to people attending college for just 11 hours a week. Benefits staff decided, without consulting the college, that the extra private study needed pushed the study time over the limit.
The FEFC says 16 hours' "guided learning" is equivalent to 21 hours' "supervised study" but college managers argue that an estimated 40,000 potential students who have lost out under benefits offices' decisions will not be helped by the rule change.
They echoed Mr Blunkett's fears that "the Government is trapping more young people in benefit dependency".
Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College, said: "We have very large numbers of out-of-work students on access courses. They need at least 21 hours' guided learning, not 15 or 16."
Another principal said: "Some can get two good A-levels on 16 hours' study a week. But by and large these are not the ones who are long-term unemployed. We are condemning them to low skills, low aspirations and even longer-term unemployment."
The Association for Colleges said the rule change did not go far enough. Ruth Gee, chief executive, said some students would still have to take a job at a moment's notice rather than complete their studies.
For college principals, hoping for a more radical reform of the 21-hour rule, the announcement was the second gloomy piece of news in a week. They were warned at the FEFC meeting in Birmingham that the squeeze on the sector has only just begun and that even greater recruitment efforts must be made.
Robert Gunn, FEFC chairman, said: "It is clear that the next two to three years are not going to be easy." Colleges must recruit heavily in January if they are to hit their 9 per cent growth targets for the year. Currently, the annual estimate is only running at 4 per cent.
Also, from this autumn, funding for thousands of school-leavers will be transferred from the FEFC to the Employment Department with the introduction of learning credits.
A more liberal interpretation of the 21-hour rule would have helped colleges reach targets, many principals say. But Mrs Widdecombe made it clear that any radical shake-up has been ruled out. "The benefits system is not - and never was - designed to subsidise people who spend a majority of their time in education," she said.