Adult education and skills will lose pound;1.1 billion over the next four years, forcing the closure of Train to Gain, wiping out entitlements to free courses and striking a blow against the Government's ambitions for apprenticeship growth, it emerged this week in the aftermath of the comprehensive spending review.
Cutting more than a quarter of the adult skills budget means over-25s taking GCSE and A-level equivalent qualifications for the first time will lose the right to funding, with a system of university-style subsidised loans to be put in place instead.
Train to Gain, the pound;1 billion-a-year workplace training programme, is to be abolished. A quarter of that saving will go towards providing 75,000 extra apprenticeship places within four years, which includes the 50,000 announced earlier this year. But it falls short of the 100,000 promised by the Conservatives before the election.
John Hayes, FE minister, said it was a good settlement for further education, in the context of pressure for rapid deficit reduction and cuts to university teaching budgets of 40 per cent.
"I'm a doughty campaigner for further education," he said. "I think it's good that we have managed to fight a strong battle to defend basic skills, we have made a persuasive case for adult and community learning, we have seeded economic growth with the apprenticeship programme. There was an important debate and we put our case persuasively."
Details of the new adult education loan system, which Mr Hayes said would be incorporated, are due to be revealed in the forthcoming Skills Investment Strategy. But Mr Hayes said they would offer the same affordability as Lord Browne proposed for HE, with no payments to make until earnings reach pound;21,000.
Mr Hayes also described the 75,000 extra apprenticeships as "a minimum" and suggested the election pledge could still be met.
"It is a massive commitment given the overall budget and the reduction in spending across the whole of Government," he said.
"Train to Gain has a massive dead weight cost, and we have had long- standing criticisms of that, which were supported by the National Audit Office."
Alan Tuckett, chief executive of Niace, the adult education body, said Train to Gain was flawed in that it put Government money into provision which employers should have paid for themselves, but hundreds of thousands of training places would be lost if businesses did not invest themselves.
"There will be significant impact on participation from the abolition of Train to Gain," he said. "The core issue is how far the changes do produce investment from employers.
"Frankly, Tesco and the like should replace the money which was being spent on Train to Gain with their own training budgets."
There has been little detail so far about how employer investment in adult skills can be increased, however, except for a mention of mechanisms such as voluntary training levies.
Mr Tuckett said: "In the US, the most deregulated economy in the world, 30 per cent of jobs are covered by licence to practise," he said, referring to regulations compelling training in certain industries. "Why Britain thinks employers shouldn't have an obligation to pay their share, I don't know."
Colleges and training providers both pointed to the need to retain some form of work-based learning in the wake of Train to Gain shutting down, pointing particularly to the programme's role in providing literacy and numeracy training for people in work. Mr Hayes said that some work-based learning would remain, focused on small and medium-sized businesses.
Funding for English for Speakers of Other Languages is also set to be cut, with support ended for migrants "not in settled communities".
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said cutting English classes would hit some of the country's poorest people.
"It is hard to see the rationale behind slashing college and university budgets when they generate massive economic growth for the country and when the alternative is more people on the dole and the state losing out on millions in tax revenues," she said.
UCU warned that the funding cuts would cause colleges to close. A report for the former Learning and Skills Council said that up to 50 colleges might have to merge or shut down.
But the Association of Colleges said that while some might merge as they have in the past, most were able to adapt. Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive, said: "There is no escaping the fact that the next few years will be extremely difficult and there are some real challenges ahead, but colleges are resilient and will find ways of making the best possible use of the funding available. We don't know whether it will mean fewer colleges or smaller colleges."
The pound;210 million budget for adult learning outside Government priorities, which was particularly crucial for the survival of specialist adult education colleges, has been retained following a letter writing campaign which brought together campaigners from the colleges themselves to the Women's Institute.