At post-16 level, the FE sector faces more competition than ever before, with school sixth-forms keen to keep students for themselves. But where adult learners are concerned, TES has learnt that colleges are struggling to cope with a surge in demand for places that they are unable to fund. Some face the worst-case scenario of having to turn prospective students away.
With almost a million young people aged 16-24 currently classified as Neet (not in education, employment or training) and university tuition fees set to treble in 2012, the Government argues that FE has a key role to play in helping to equip young adults with the skills they need for work. For the most part, colleges are happy to step into the breach. The problem comes when they do not have the resources to play their part.
A survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) found a mixed picture nationally. Since last year, 44 per cent of colleges have seen a drop in demand for places for learners aged 19 and above. But, in many cases, this has been planned, with some colleges reducing their intakes as principals adapt to reduced levels of Government funding.
In contrast, 35 per cent have seen their 19-plus demand go up. At the same time, their funding settlement has failed to keep pace. The consequences, say principals, are serious. As well as having to turn away potential learners, colleges are finding that their scope for offering in-year places and targeting Neets in the local community is severely reduced.
Middlesbrough College has reported a 12 per cent increase in adult learners. Principal Mike Hopkins is keen to recruit as many as possible, but the college has already taken on more students than it has been funded for. As a result, he estimates it will be #163;1.3 million over budget.
"In essence, the college's allocated budget from the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) is not sufficient to allow the college to meet demand. So, for the first time in my career I am in the invidious position of having to ration learning and inform large numbers of adults seeking training and retraining that there is no place for them," he said.
In a difficult local environment - Middlesbrough is the eighth most deprived area in the country, with unemployment standing at 7.9 per cent, double the national average - the college is seeing a particular rise in demand from 19 and 20-year-olds.
"We are now expecting to exceed our current SFA funding allocation and are faced with having no additional funding available to deliver further in-year responsive training, particularly to the unemployed," Mr Hopkins said. As a result, he fears "policy really is in danger of creating yet another forgotten generation".
And the scenario is repeated in colleges across the country. "It's something that we have heard our colleges saying," AoC assistant chief executive Julian Gravatt said. "We are seeing very high unemployment at the moment; it's one of those things that is very unpredictable, where demand is."
The Sheffield College has seen a 16 per cent increase in adult applications. It received 2,000 applications for 300 places on a training scheme run with Tesco. But rather than turning people away, Jason Pepper, the college's executive director of finance and resources, said it has been trying to maximise learner numbers to offset its funding cuts.
"Our overall funding has been cut, which is difficult, and the rate of funding per adult learner has been cut, quite dramatically in some cases. We've been trying to recruit more students just to stand still," Mr Pepper said.
Berkshire College of Agriculture has seen a slight increase in demand over last year, with many of the adult unemployed wanting to study for qualifications to start a new career. Director of marketing and student services Sarah Irving says the situation is precarious. "It's difficult. We haven't turned any students down this year, but it would be interesting to see how our 19-plus funding pot is looking."
The college's latest projections show that per-pupil funding is expected to decrease every year, raising what Ms Irving describes as the "horrendous" prospect of being forced to turn learners away in the near future. "We are having to do other commercial work to ensure we can continue to exist and grow," Ms Irving said.
Among the options being explored are plans to promote the college as a wedding venue and installing mountain bike tracks and high-ropes courses. Unfortunately, hiring out a Grade I-listed building and creating lucrative leisure activities on unused plots of land are options all but a lucky few colleges can only dream of.
An SFA spokeswoman said the body will "continue to monitor performance and demand in the sector and will analyse data when it becomes available for the first quarter".
"Government policy has established entitlements to learning, which ensure public funds are committed to those in greatest need," she added. "Colleges and training providers must use their discretion to manage their provision and maximise the impact of public funding."
Ministers and principals are united in their desire to use FE to give young adults the skills they need to get into work. But with limited money available to transform this vision into reality, how they will do it is anyone's guess.
991,000 - Unemployed 16 to 24-year-olds
21.3% of 16 to 24-year-olds out of work
Increase in adult learners
The Sheffield College - 16%
Middlesbrough College - 12%.