The number of immigrants learning English fell by nearly 40 per cent after plans to charge fees became known, the FE minister has admitted to Parliament.
From a peak of nearly 550,000 students the year before, in 2006-07 just 335,000 people joined English for speakers of other languages (Esol) courses, when the Government announced that migrants would have to pay unless they were on benefits.
Sion Simon, the further education minister, told MPs there was no requirement to provide a specific number of places for Esol, but that colleges and other providers were expected to try to meet demand with allocated funds.
The Learning and Skills Council had indicated a smaller fall was likely, with 14 per cent fewer starts in autumn 2007 when the fees policy came into effect, compared to the year before. But the figures now suggest the largest slump had already occurred, reducing enrolments to their lowest level since 2001.
Alan Tuckett, director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, said vulnerable people in need of English classes had reacted ahead of the fees policy being implemented.
He said: "People who are vulnerable will think, `This isn't for me.' Governments always have to worry that there will be over-interpretation of its policies. Nobody could argue against the need in an open migration society for people to have access to English to work here and to live here.
"We opened the door to lots of people in successive waves but we never had proper strategies in place to teach them English and so we have these wild fluctuations."
Ministers said the demand for Esol was so great that it could not be met and they had to prioritise those most in need. Government also still subsidises part of the cost of courses for those paying fees.
But with migration becoming less attractive for those looking for work as the recession bites, demand could fall as some return home.
It was hoped that the changes would benefit long-term, settled communities in Britain rather than economic migrants who were likely to stay only a short time.
But Karen Dudley, from the London Literacy and Language Unit in South Bank University, said: "I used to work in a very large college in east London where every September we had hundreds of people queuing around the block for English classes. Now those queues aren't anywhere near as big. It's an invisible group - you can't count who is missing because they never even come in to be assessed."
A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills questioned the figures given to Parliament by the minister, saying they had been affected by a change in the method of counting student numbers and by a reduction in funding for short courses.
He said: "Government funding for Esol has broadly trebled since 2001. We have invested over Pounds 1 billion and supported over two million learners. The Government reviewed spending and introduced changes designed to refocus funding on those learners most in need of public support by requiring those who can afford to do so to make a contribution to the cost of Esol provision."