The Government has ducked the big issues in further education, says Neil Merrick

When Labour came to power in 1997, the further-education colleges were feeling battered and bruised after a hectic four years outside local-authority control.

Eight years later, most of the cut-throat competition and macho management that followed incorporation has gone and budgets have increased, though not necessarily by enough to keep pace with enrolments. Students have become known as "learners", and further education is part of a wider learning-and-skills sector. But have colleges really fared well under Labour? Or are they still the poor relations of the education world?

Peter Pendle, chief executive of the Association of College Management, says Labour's two terms have been generally disappointing, even if colleges are now marginally better off. The Learning and Skills Council, which has funded further education and work-based learning since 2001, was poorly conceived, he says. "Poor old John Harwood [the former Learning and Skills Council (LSC) chief executive] was put in there and expected to hit the ground running with no resources."

The recent row over the Tomlinson proposals, when ministers rejected a 14-19 diploma, has done little to improve the Government's reputation, Pendle says. "Two terms of Labour has been two terms of bottling out of the hard decisions."

Since 1997, college budgets have doubled, from £2.7bn to £5.5bn, while the numbers studying in further education have risen from about 3.5 million to more than 4 million. Adults account for much of the rise, with colleges responsible for improving literacy and numeracy, but under-16s, too, are spending more time on vocational courses.

John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, says FE has been given extra money for meeting new government demands but, meanwhile, promises to bring funding in line with school sixth forms haven't been met. "There is a yawning gap between resources and expectations," he says.

Barry Lovejoy, head of colleges at the university and college lecturers' union Natfhe, says the funding gap between colleges and schools has narrowed, but is still about 10 per cent. While the Welsh Assembly found money to raise lecturers' pay to that of schoolteachers, there does not appear to be the same commitment in England.

Natfhe does not spend as much time fighting job losses as it did in the 1990s, but it struggles each year to force colleges to award negotiated pay rises. "Further education is still one of the most pressurised places to work," Lovejoy says. "The pressure to reach targets is always there and there is uncertainty over funding from year to year."

There are moves to professionalise the workforce, including a requirement that lecturers hold teaching qualifications. But about 60 per cent of staff work part-time and often miss out on training and development. "Labour has not tackled the reliance on part-time and casual labour," Lovejoy says. David Hunter, the chief executive of Lifelong Learning UK, the new sector-skills council for post-16 education and training, expects the professionalisation of teachers and other staff to continue, but says that, in funding, colleges have been victims of their own success. "Further education has exceeded its targets and there is not enough money to go round," he says. "Rates of learner satisfaction are high, but demands on the sector are growing and the cracks are starting to show."

While colleges have a higher profile than in 1997, John Brennan believes they still fail to attract enough media attention and only play a limited role in government strategies. "There is greater awareness of the contribution that colleges make, but too often they are absent when ministers articulate their vision," he says.

Much of the past eight years has been taken up with battles over bureaucracy, both under the LSC and its predecessor, the Further Education Funding Council. A joint inspection system introduced in 2001 is likely to be dismantled if, as expected, the Adult Learning Inspectorate is absorbed into the Office for Standards in Education.

But the LSC's bureaucracy buster, Sir George Sweeney, insists things have improved since 1997. "Further education has moved much more centre-stage, as demonstrated by the fact that we are having a debate over the esteem of vocational education and how it fits into the economy," says Sir George. "I would say unequivocally that the service is better for young people and adults."