Reports of creeping cuts and rising fees have provoked a national review of the state of adult education in FE colleges.
The review is being conducted by the National Association of Adult Continuing Education. At the organisation's annual general meeting in London last week members from colleges and adult education centres expressed alarm at the way Learning and Skills Council policies are damaging adult learning.
Colin Flint, former principal of Solihull college, said the need to meet government targets had resulted in many ordinary adult education courses disappearing in colleges, particularly those that did not lead directly to qualifications. 'There does not seem to be an understanding in the LSCs of the historic role of FE colleges in providing adult education.'
The inquiry will be headed by Chris Hughes, retiring director of the Learning and Skills Development Agency.
Some at the meeting called for Niace to campaign to promote adult learning before the next election. Otherwise it could suffer in new funding and planning arrangements being drawn up by the LSC for the next few years.
The LSC has hired consultants KPMG to find out how colleges are using funding for adult and community learning, which has been safeguarded up till now.
Sue Meyer, Niace director of programmes and policy, said though Niace was broadly supportive of this exercise but there were fears it could lead to even more courses being scrapped and big increases in fees. She said there there was already a groundswell of tutors going private because of cuts and increased bureaucracy.
"This is a brave attempt to solve a thorny problem and also find out how much is spent on adult and community learning," she said. "But we are very worried about local LSCs' behaviour. They are fixated by strategic area reviews and programmes such as basic skills and the Skills Strategy. They are saying to providers we don't want too much of this leisure stuff."
Niace is already surveying adult education in 40 local authorities and is due to report by Christmas.
Annie Merton, the institutue's senior development officer for adult community learning, said: 'The national LSC is setting the policy, but won't grasp the nettle of telling local LSCs what to do.
"Many local LSCs are jumping the gun on cutting courses and charging fees.
Unless they do something outrageous it's unlikely that they can be stopped... Non-accredited courses in colleges and LEAs are likely to suffer."
The latest survey of colleges, approved by Niace's board last week, is intended to complement and extend this work. It will be presented to ministers next year.
At the meeting Niace principal research officer Veronica McGivney presented statistics which she said demonstrated that "adult learning in the UK is going to the dogs". Despite increased numbers in priority programmes such as Skills for Life, overall participation in adult learning has fallen since 1996. "We need to nip the ankles of ministers and remind them that learning is more than skills. What is needed is a rich and varied offer for all students," she said.