One fifth of further education colleges may close or merge in the next three years, says the accountancy and management consultancy KPMG Peat Marwick.
The claim has angered the college lecturers' union NATFHE. Its leaders are to met Education Secretary Gillian Shephard next week and will argue that the closure threats are evidence of "gross underfunding".
Martin Davies, Peat Marwick's national education services director, predicts that while there will be many closures the remaining colleges will teach more students and achieve better results. His predictions are based on monitoring colleges' progress since they became independent of local authorities in April 1993. Mr Davies, a former deputy chief executive of the National Curriculum Council, said it would be more and more difficult for small colleges to survive and as many as 100 may disappear in the next three years.
"A few will amalgamate with other colleges because of cash-flow difficulties, more successful competitors, or an inability to expand. Others . . . will see benefits in imaginative partnerships through federation or merger."
Mr Davies added that there needed to be a "better approach than the survival of the fittest, weakest to the wall". Colleges needed to work in partnership with the communities they served, he said.