Instead of making it easier for them to study part-time without losing benefits, new rules to be introduced in April next year amount to a crackdown, with people out of work losing at least five hours a week study time.
A written answer given to Parliament by employment minister Ann Widdecombe on how the new 16-hour rule will work puts her department at odds with both the Department for Education and Further Education Funding Council. Unless Employment backs down, a major row is likely, fuelled by a storm of criticism from colleges.
Until now, people studying on benefits have been subject to the 21-hour rule which was open to individual interpretation by local social security offices.
The replacement rule, introduced in job-seeker's allowance legislation, entitles the unemployed to 16 hours a week "guided study" and comes after Sir William Stubbs, chief executive of the FEFC, argued strongly that misinterpretation of the regulations had to be stopped.
Although not a complete victory an unpublished Association for Colleges survey shows that 36 per cent of the 80,000 students on benefits would fall foul of the new rule it means that there is an unambiguous right to 16 hours each week of study supervised by a tutor clearly responsible for the course. Discretion is removed from benefits offices.
But the biggest victory for colleges appeared to be over the way the rule would work in practice, allowing the 16 hours to be averaged out over weeks - vital since the revolution in further education has led to more flexible timetabling.
An FEFC official this week said: "It is our understanding that 16 hours would be interpreted flexibly and in some way averaged. Obviously people still have to be available for work." This was also the understanding of DFE officials when the new rule was announced. But in reply to a question over the inclusion of weekend and evening work in the formula by Labour MP Jeff Rooker, Miss Widdecombe appeared to back-track.
"All hours that are classified as guided learning hours will count towards the threshold of 16 guided learning hours per week," she said, insisting this was supported by the FEFC. An Employment Department spokeswoman confirmed this meant no "averaging," for students. "In any one week they can work up to 16 hours without losing benefits."