Courses aimed at adults who have previously been failed by the education system could be some of the biggest casualties of funding cuts, it emerged this week.
The funding reductions, which will see one in four places disappear in college adult education courses, will stretch beyond "non-priority" qualifications, with success rates and financial returns likely to determine which other courses get axed.
Lowell Williams, principal of Dudley College, West Midlands, faces cuts of pound;1.2 million, or nearly 1,800 places for adults. "We are very likely to be influenced by success rates and financial returns and, inevitably, colleges will be under pressure to withdraw those programmes which either have lower success rates or are more expensive," he said.
"It doesn't stand to reason that those programmes with lower success rates and higher costs are less relevant to the individuals they serve. In fact, it is often the opposite."
Some courses with low success rates may be poor provision, but others are aimed at people who have achieved few qualifications in the past. Mr Williams said colleges may also be forced to reduce the number of places on other courses and raise the entry requirements, becoming more selective about their students.
He said judging from figures at other colleges in the Black Country area of the West Midlands, communities suffering the greatest job losses were also seeing some of the largest reductions in adult education funding.
"Our local analysis suggests a disproportionately high impact on the weakest communities," he said.
Colleges could have lessened the impact of the cuts if they had been given a free hand over where they fell, rather than following national priorities, Mr Williams added. "The centralised, dare I say, `Stalinist' approach, has been discredited elsewhere, and on a grand scale," he said.
Nick Linford, author of The Hands-on Guide to Post-16 Funding, said: "There's no question that colleges would be taking a long, hard look at those courses that aren't meeting a high level of success."
He said English for speakers of other languages was likely to suffer because of its cost and lower funding rate, and he believes colleges may have to reduce the extra support they offer to struggling students, such as catch-up classes, as they will no longer be able to afford it.
But Gaynor Field, head of funding policy at the Skills Funding Agency, said at a joint funding conference by the Association of Colleges and Edexcel that there was no evidence this was an issue yet. Until now colleges had only experienced rising incomes, however.
"Our review of the first year of demand-led funding didn't show that there were any issues over lack of support for students," she said. "It's something that we need to be aware of though."