Colleges have attacked the “ignorance” and “misunderstanding” of policymakers after it was alleged by business secretary Vince Cable that they wanted to “kill off” further education in England.
Mr Cable claimed at a fringe meeting of the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow that civil servants in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills wanted to cut the department's budget by 25 per cent in 2010, with the biggest areas of expenditure being universities, students and FE.
“I could have taken the advice we had from the civil servants, who said 'well, why don't you just effectively kill off FE. Nobody will really notice’,” the BBC reported.
He added: "The easy way out would have been to have taken all the money out of the FE sector and out of training and I said 'we are not doing that'. It is absolutely critical for the future skills base of the country that we have strong post-school training and education.”
However, since 2010 the adult skills budget has been cut by more than a third while funding for 18-year-olds in education was reduced by 17.5 per cent from August.
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges, said: “Unfortunately, there’s ignorance about FE colleges in parts of Westminster, despite the brilliant work that they do.
“Although it's pleasing to hear that Vince Cable prevented even worse funding cuts being handed out to FE colleges in 2010, it does need to be recognised that funding for adult skills has fallen by 35 per cent since then.”
Lynne Sedgmore, director of the 157 Group of Colleges, said the claim was “quite extraordinary”.
“It suggests a deep-rooted misunderstanding among those shaping policy about the impact of the college sector,” she said.
“In addition to the 700,000 learners whose lives are improved just by 157 Group colleges in an average year, there is clearly little understanding of the many billions of pounds contributed by colleges to economic growth through skills development and earning potential.
“Far from being 'something nobody would notice', colleges are critically important to both businesses and communities. The last four years have been financially tough, but colleges are succeeding in bringing private and social investment into the skills system."
David Harbourne, director of research and policy at the Edge Foundation, said the claim "almost beggars belief". "The harm to individuals and employers - to the whole economy in fact - would have been incalculable," he said.
"The most likely explanation is that officials wanted to prove that axing university tuition fees was unaffordable, both financially and politically."
A BIS spokesperson said: “In 2010, like all departments, we took a long hard look at all of our spending in order to achieve the level of cuts required.
“Despite the tough fiscal climate, we have retained our commitment to Further Education. The overall funding for Adult Further Education (FE) and Skills is £4.1 billion in 2014-15. In the past four years, as part of the overall funding, £1.7 billion in capital investment has been made available to FE colleges with funding set to continue.
“FE colleges play a key role in getting people the skills they need to get on, through apprenticeships, technical and vocational training and support with English and maths. This enables businesses to develop highly skilled workforces and supports economic growth.”
Colleges get one year protection from funding cuts - March 2014