College leaders have accused ministers of "taking a massive gamble" over the decision to demand an increase of 50 per cent in the fees of many adult education courses by 2008.
Bill Rammell, further and higher education minister, wants college fees for courses outside government priorities increased from around 25 to 37.5 per cent within three years. The decision was announced last week (FE Focus, October 21) as part of a package of funding reforms for the learning and skills sector.
But John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said this week that the problems this would cause had not been clearly thought through. Evidence was emerging already of huge cuts in courses for adults following pressures last year to increase fees over the past 12 months. He questioned whether further rises at the speed ministers were demanding were feasible.
"We are already getting reports of big cuts. One college has had to cut adult provision for fee-charging courses by two-thirds, another by 25 per cent," he told FE Focus.
Losses in terms of recruitment and income were far greater than the increases envisaged in the push to drive up the proportion of college cost met by fees, he warned.
"We are not against fee increases," he said. "It has long been the stance of the AoC to say that those who can pay should pay. But we all know how hard it is to shift the market. We need to do so with a degree of caution and keep a close check on the outcome of changes."
The AoC supported many of the changes proposed by the Government this year, he said, including freeing cash for more pressing FE needs and closing the funding gap between schools and colleges.
However, there were still serious difficulties in the spending plans, he said.
They would lead to a cut of 500,000 adult learning places and reduce spending of mainstream adult learning places by 7 per cent over two years, he said.
Government funding to 2008 aims to support 46,000 (11 per cent) more 16 to 19-year-olds in schools and colleges, maintain levels of recruitment to apprenticeships, provide tree tuition for adult basic skills and employers, and maintain spending on adult learning.
Dr Brennan said the Government had been more "explicit, honest and transparent" than before about spending plans, giving colleges good notice of what to expect. "But it will still take time to unpick the package - it is not yet clear what the full implications will be," he added.
However, he takes issue with Mr Rammell over two big issues. The first is the decision to spend 10 to 12 per cent of the pound;670 million cash for the National Employer Training Programme - now to be called Train2Gain - on training brokers. This is the free training scheme aimed at boosting skills in industry.
"It is a waste of money and time-wasting bureaucracy," he said. "Our view is that for the most part, the system functions best if colleges and other providers deal directly with employers."
The second big issue is the decision to increase fees for many adults.
"There was a lack of consultation, evidence, assessment of the market and assessment of the impact on colleges," he said. "There has been inadequate consideration of the financial health of colleges and the consequences of what is proposed.
"The Government was prone to criticise the sector for failing to collect Pounds 100 million in fee income. But those decisions were made in the climate of a culture engendered by the Government in the 1990s when we were trying to minimise rather than maximise fees and increase recruitment. The answer to the funding problems now is not simply to raise fees."