Richmond Adult and Community College , the country's largest adult education institution won Government approval to become independent fearing local authority cuts. However schools in the borough are keen to keep the evening classes they had been running for the college.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has pleaded with all parties to resist open competition which, it believes will damage wider adult education provision.
Richmond joins 457 colleges removed from local authority control in the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. It is the first one specialising in adult education to go it alone since the Act and it has reopened the row about the status and funding of adult education.
Under the Act, adult education was split in two. Vocational courses were paid for by the Further Education Funding Council, recreational courses were funded and controlled by LEAs. Colleges and LEAs attacked the divide as "arbitrary" and "nonsensical". Ministers were accused of using it as an expedient to cut spending on adult education.
Richmond Adult and Community College was refused independence, despite having 20,000 mainly part-time students, its own governing body, a delegated budget and around 1,000 courses, more than half vocational, attracting FEFC cash.
The decision of ministers three years on to grant independence has enraged the ruling Liberal Democrats and education officers who say it is an inextricable part of the LEA's service. They have warned they may pull the plug on a vital funding lifeline to the college.
There are already signs of a backlash as schools which run evening courses for the college, say they do not want to lose them.
Roger Hibbitt, head of Whitton School, Twickenham, where there are yoga, tap dancing and creative writing classes three nights a week, said: "We would want to continue holding adult education classes here but would be looking for the best deal for our customers. People don't have the same loyalty towards the college as they did before it decided to opt out."
Adult education centres nationwide say they will monitor the progress of Richmond. Alan Tuckett, director of the NIACE, fears if the row is not quelled it will have a widely damaging effect.
"On balance, I believe independence for Richmond is the right thing. With the best will in the world, the local education authority has found it hard not to make cuts. " The LEA insists it has looked after the college, injecting Pounds 2.5 million into adult education over two years. But college managers say independence will bring cash benefits and make the 16 centres throughout the borough easier to manage.
Ann Risman, the college principal, told The TES: "It wasn't that we wanted to get away from the local authority. But the only way we could secure our long-term future was to go into the FE sector.
"The local authority's resources were shrinking rapidly and we were in a discretionary area of funding. When we saw how adult education was being cut in swathes across the country, incorporation seemed the only option."