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My Italian holiday failed to take off

Although pound;70 seemed quite expensive for a course lasting just 10 weeks, I decided to bite the bullet and rang Eastleigh college to register for Holiday Italian.

Unfortunately, not enough other people had the same idea. The course, which was due to start in January, failed to get off the ground because it did not attract the minimum of 14 students required to make it financially viable.

This year, adult enrolments at Eastleigh are down by 14 per cent. Some classes have been pooled to bring them up to the required numbers but, in other cases, potential students such as myself have simply been turned away.

Next year, the situation is likely to get even worse. Having already put course fees up by 12 per cent this year to cover some of the money it is losing from the Learning and Skills Council, the Hampshire college is preparing to raise prices again by a similar amount.

Like other FE colleges, Eastleigh has been told it must move towards a position where adults pay 37.5 per cent of course costs within two years.

To make matters worse, courses such as Holiday Italian, which do not lead to a qualification, have lost all their government subsidy.

College principal Tony Lau Walker says it is not unusual for about one in eight courses that are advertised in its adult prospectus to not go ahead.

While the college does not like missing out on pound;70 from potential customers, it cannot afford to run classes for just a few people.

If the college increased course fees by the full amount needed to cover the loss of LSC funds, prices would probably rise by a further 6 per cent and it fears more subjects might disappear. "We have been in this market for a long time," he says. "We're trying to maintain as close to normal provision as we can by taking some of the hit ourselves."

Just down the road at Fareham, the FE college pretty much gave up trying to run adult leisure classes two years ago. It is still possible to learn to play the guitar, but a 10-week course that used to cost pound;35 with LSC support is about to rise to pound;127. Brian Howden, the college's marketing manager, believes people who learn a hobby should probably pay the full cost, but the problem is they are accustomed to subsidised fees.

"It comes as a bit of a shock," he says.

Students of Italian at Chichester college can choose between paying pound;196 for an unaccredited 30-week course for beginners or, if they are not scared off by a final exam, there is an Open College Network course of 35 weeks that costs pound;139.

Enrolments for adult leisure courses are down by about 25 per cent this year. "We have no room to subsidise them," says college principal Richard Parker. "We have to pass it on to the learner."

Returning to my doomed Italian course (which would have worked out at Pounds 3.50 per hour), Dr Parker disputes whether this is such a high price to pay. "It's a case of finding a price that the public will bear," he says.

But he accepts colleges will need to improve their marketing and that the quality of teaching will come under greater scrutiny from students.

"Colleges are entering new territory," he says. "Until now, we've not had to be that commercial."

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