Government demands for Welsh colleges to cut spending for the next three years will hit the quality of courses and lead to widespread redundancies, a joint forum of the chairs of governors has warned.
In an unprecedented attack on Government policy, 19 of the 26 college chairs have written jointly to Welsh Secretary William Hague, demanding a complete rethink on spending.
Their anger was provoked when collective cuts were imposed by the Further Education Funding Council for Wales well in excess of those demanded from English colleges. Last year, Wales was praised for marginally greater efficiency in improving recruitment and reaching their targets.
Colleges in both England and Wales have been told to make efficiency savings averaging 4.7 per cent a year in spending on books and materials until the year 2000. But Welsh colleges must findconsiderably more to compensate for larger capital spending. Cumulative savings of more than 20 per cent are being demanded.
In a letter to Mr Hague, the 19 say: "The sector will be unable to fund the up-to-date equipment and machinery which is so badly needed to be competitive and attract students to further their education and employers who wish to take advantage of training facilities offered at FE institutions."
The timing of the letter will be seen as designed to embarrass Mr Hague in the run-up to the general election. While there are few votes in further education compared with pre-16 education, colleges are determined to put on the pressure.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, was given a cool reception when she joined Labour and Liberal spokesmen on what was the last chance for the parties' front-bench teams to address the sector before the General Election.
While Mrs Shephard praised the sector for its achievements she warned of further cuts to come and was seen as bereft of good ideas for the future of the sector.
The Welsh college chairs insist they are taking a pragmatic view and say the cuts simply cannot be afforded. "Whilst accepting the necessity to keep a tight control on Government spending, we are firmly of the opinion that further education, in making its contribution to economic development requires an adequate financial reward from the public purse," they write.
Welsh colleges have already come under greater squeeze than many of their English counterparts - before the latest range of cuts are imposed. Gwent Tertiary College is losing 69 management staff under a restructuring programme to fend off a deficit of up to Pounds 5 million.
"The continuing squeeze on costs is now threatening both the quality and range of provision which colleges are able to make, and also the long-term financial viability of some institutions," the chairs of governors have warned in their letter to Mr Hague.