Teaching unions are warning of an adult education crisis in England as hundreds of courses and teaching posts are axed.
By Hannah Goff
Education reporter, BBC News
At least 130 colleges report shortfalls in their adult education budget - many of more than £1m, research by the Association of Colleges suggests.
Official figures show a 17% decrease in the number of adult learners in further education last year.
Ministers say the changes result from a shift in funding priorities towards key skills to enable people to find work.
There has been a major shift of focus in adult learning
The latest Department for Education and Skills figures show there were 3.63 million learners in further education in 2005-6 - a 13.6% fall on 2004-5.
The number of younger learners - aged under 19 - increased by 2.3% over the same period.
Meanwhile, there were nearly one in 10 fewer learners enrolled in Adult and Community Learning programmes in 2005-6 than there were in 2004-5.
The national representative for adult and community learning for the University and College Union, Les Price, said large providers faced funding shortfalls of around a fifth of their adult education budgets.
"There is a real question mark over the future sustainability of adult education facilities in the local authority sector.
"Undoubtedly further education colleges are being hit hard too in terms of their adult learning budgets," he said.
Steep fee rises from this September were "a step into the unknown" and the "full extent of the damage" would not be clear until next year, he added.
The picture across the adult education sector is increasingly bleak, with 134 colleges reported to be scrapping courses, making staffing cuts or reducing budgets.
The Association of Colleges compiled the list after trawling through hundreds of cuttings of regional newspapers.
Funding priorities have shifted away from short courses, such as modern languages, towards key skills of literacy, language and numeracy and towards young learners.
The AoC's head of funding and development, Julian Gravatt, said the switch had squeezed other courses and fees would rise 15% a year between 2004 and 2010.
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said many of the senior college staff his union represented were having to axe posts.
He said that some colleges, where adult education was not their main raison d'etre, were pulling out of the sector altogether.
"Colleges which do a lot of adult education are definitely feeling the pinch.
"Those that do not have so much because they focus on 16-19 or higher education may not be so concerned about it or it's quite possible that they will pull out," he said.
Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning Bill Rammell said there had been an expansion in funds for further education but that it had to be spent on the government's priorities.
He dismissed suggestions of a crisis and said: "I am very confident that what we are doing is the right approach for skills and the economy as a whole, if we look at the challenges we need to face as a country."
Jon Gamble, director for adult and lifelong learning at the Learning and Skills Council which funds the sector, said what was happening was "a genuine attempt to refocus a significant amount of money in the system to support the government's priorities.
"It's quite right that those who are most at risk, the most vulnerable in society, should be the primary recipients for support.
"I am not going to say that a half a million or so places haven't been lost. What we are talking about is adults on short courses that have the financial wherewithal to make a contribution to their learning."
He added that some £210m had been set aside to protect leisure learning.
By reducing the number of short courses (defined as nine hours or fewer) the LSC has enabled more adults to access qualifications showing they are employable.
The government has acknowledged the change in focus will cost around 500,000 places in adult education out of a total of 3.5 million.
But the National Institute for Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE) estimates around one million adult learning places will be lost through the funding shake-up.
It is worried that those most in need of returning to education after a long gap will miss out because their soft way back into college, perhaps through a pottery class, is lost.
A spokesman said very few less-educated people were likely to plunge straight for qualifications such as an NVQ in a subject like computer science, which is equivalent to five GCSEs.
Many simply needed to feel confident about being in a classroom again, he said.
Niace director Alan Tuckett added: "Only one in three new or replacement jobs over the next 10 years can be filled by first-time entrants to the labour market. This means that employers will need to attract adults into jobs."