The decision to push through regulations implementing the FE loans system on the last day of Parliament this month without any debate or scrutiny has been branded a "procedural and constitutional disgrace" by MPs.
Regulations for the fees and loans system, which would mean thousands of pounds of debt for students aged over 24 taking A-level equivalent courses from 2013, will be laid before Parliament on 16 July. Because they do not require any primary legislation, what has been described as the biggest change to adult education funding in a generation would come into force automatically if there are no objections.
Shadow FE minister Gordon Marsden said that the regulations would come into force on 1 September, before MPs have returned to Parliament and had the chance to object. He has written to John Hayes, the FE minister, in protest at the "hidden" resolution just before the summer recess and failure to allow any time for scrutiny before the regulations become law.
"It seems to me there is almost no precedent for such important regulations being put through in such a way that prevents any chance of debate or discussion on what are the biggest changes in funding support for adult learners and further education in a generation," he wrote. "Taken together this would be both a procedural and constitutional disgrace. It also creates potential havoc for colleges who need to plan courses and staff numbers for the academic year given that these changes are likely to have a negative impact on both."
While it is likely that the loans proposals would be voted through in the event of a full debate, Mr Marsden said that scrutiny could prevent regulations that were not fit for purpose. "John Hayes is always saying that FE should be treated with the same respect as HE (higher education) - but with HE loans we had a debate on the floor of the House," he said, adding that the FE system represented a bigger change than simply raising a fee cap as with HE.
The lack of protection for science, technology, engineering and maths subjects is among the areas Mr Marsden said are causing "alarm". Since such courses tend to be more expensive, students are more likely to be discouraged by debt, and unlike the HE loans system they will receive no special funding.
The future of HE access courses is also a concern, he said, with students having to take out two sets of loans to progress. He added that the government's own market research has shown that over-35s are "overwhelmingly" unwilling to take out loans, leading to an expected 30 per cent fall in student numbers.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the government's promises to engage with the FE sector have been "exposed, once again, as little more than lip service".
"To rush these regulations through at the end of Parliament is bad enough. However, to do it after the evidence and a united sector has rejected them is quite incredible. It is simply not acceptable to hurry through a decision that will affect the lives of more than 100,000 people."
Vince Cable, the business, innovation and skills secretary, has also been warned of the risk to the government's flagship achievement in FE; the growth in apprenticeship numbers. With most of these coming from the over- 25 age group, who will face debts of thousands of pounds, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills has said that numbers could fall.
But a Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spokesman said: "The regulations are being laid in a timely manner, in accordance with standard parliamentary practice.
"The policy was announced in 2010, followed by public consultation, and drafts of the regulations have been shared with a range of organisations, including the Association of Colleges and Association of Employment and Learning Providers.
"The introduction of loans is an important change for the sector, so we are working closely with colleges and training organisations to ensure they have the information they need to prepare. The take-up of loans, and the impact on learners, will be monitored closely."
LIFE AFTER LOANS
pound;170m - The reduction in adult skills funding by 2014
247,000 - The number of students that can be supported by replacing direct subsidies with loans
193,000 - The number of students that could take up courses without loans being introduced
70% - The proportion of loans expected to be taken up, with many worried about the cost
112,000 - The expected fall in student numbers overall next year.
Original headline: Rushing through of loans legislation is a `constitutional disgrace'