The number of level 1 students (GCSE grades D-G) has grown by 26 per cent. More than a million students are now at level two (5 GCSEs at grades A*-C), an increase of 20 per cent. These are the highest levels since 1994. In the 60-plus age range, numbers have almost doubled in the past two years to more than 300,000.
John Harwood, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Council, said the increase in numbers was "good news for learners and the economy".
John Brennan, FE development director of the Association of Colleges, said figures should be seen in their historical context. He said the sector had grown until 1997 but then government had pulled the plug and the policy of cash for growth (known as the "demand-led element") ended. At the same time, the screws were tightened on franchising (colleges sub-contracting work to outside providers).
"We all went into decline and the next thing was that ministers announced they wanted an extra 700,000 enrolments," he said.
Dr Brennan said the effects of different kinds of growth were now showing: more short courses, changes in funding to enable growth, and a big drive last year to increase level 2 provision. Summer schools had also boosted participation. But Dr Brennan also warned that future growth would be constrained.
"The government's agenda of widening participation and improving skills is inconsistent with the limits that will be imposed on college growth, particularly adult enrolments," he said.
There has not been a commensurate rise in lecturers. Since the Government came to power, numbers have gone from 130,858 to 134,316.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "More students with the same number of teachers puts more pressure on teachers. Large classes make it harder for students to get the support they need."