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Increase will hit women hardest

Women on low incomes will be the greatest losers as tuition fees increase, according to research by one of the Government's leading advisory groups.

The task of running a home and looking after children is keeping many potential students, particularly women, out of colleges, even though many want to learn.

Many will not qualify for the free courses which are provided for those studying for a first level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) qualification. They are more likely to have small incomes and will struggle to pay out of their own pockets, says the report by the Learning and Skills Development Agency (now the Learning and Skills Network).

The report, Beg, Borrow, Steal, or Save, by Claire Callender, professor of social policy at London South Bank university, is based on interviews with more than 4,000 adults.

It said: "A handful - a maximum of 5 per cent (of men and women) - received financial aid towards the cost of their learning.

"Even fewer may be eligible for such financial assistance in the future, however poor they are and however much they want to study, because they are not in the priority groups.

"This will particularly affect women who have lower incomes than men, and are more likely than men to study part-time."

The report concludes there will be more "losers" than "winners" among further education students - and those hoping to study - under the Government's skills strategy and its approach to fees.

The report suggests the student population will become more middle-class as those who are unable to pay for courses are squeezed out.

It says the argument that FE courses are an investment - with financial gains to be had on the part of the student - has not convinced enough adults to part with their cash.

Even those entitled to free tuition need to be convinced of the benefits in terms of future earning capacity. The report says the Government needs to do more to explain the personal benefits of studying.

The Government's priorities for public spending on courses are aimed at adults going for:

* first level 2 qualifications;

* basic skills;

* level 3 courses in subjects which have skills shortages;

* and those re-skilling to return to work in jobs where there is a skills shortage.

College funding from the Government has been based on the assumption that students not exempt from fees would pay 25 per cent of course cost.

If this had been carried out in 2002-03, pound;260 million would have been collected in fees. Instead, pound;160m was collected.

The new assumption, that 27.5 per cent can be charged, is widely seen by principals as unrealistic. This figure will increase to 37.5 per cent for 2007-08.

Eventually, the Government wants students - or employers - to pay 50 per cent.

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