cuts to adult education have proved to be more than three times as severe as officials predicted, with nearly 700,000 places disappearing last year.
The dramatic fall has come despite assurances from the Learning and Skills Council that the loss would be only 200,000 adult places between 2005 and 2006.
David Russell, the director of resources at the LSC, said in June 2005:
"Ten per cent is a worst case figure. We hope it will be lower than 300,000. I think it will be closer to 200,000."
In fact, the number of places in adult and community learning, FE and work-based learning fell by 674,700. Colleges said core vocational subjects had been hit, along with leisure courses.
Barry Lovejoy, the head of FE at the University and College Union, said:
"We experience it at the sharp edge through members being made redundant, and this confirms our worst fears."
Alistair Thomson, the senior policy officer of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, blamed the unexpectedly high fall in numbers on failure to properly market test the effect of funding changes.
"We are extremely disappointed that a Government that spent so long widening participation is presiding over such a precipitous decline," he said.
"It's sending the wrong message at a time when the changing demographics of the UK mean there will be fewer young people to fill their parents'
Mr Thomson said some colleges and local authorities may also have been over-zealous in shifting their focus to Government priorities.
John Brennan, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said colleges had done what was asked of them, but the consequences of the policy were unexpected. "That shift has been accompanied by a much larger reduction in opportunities for adult learners than we or Government expected," he said.
"As the data makes clear that reduction has fallen not simply on leisure, recreation and personal development opportunities, but also on core vocational subjects such as engineering, construction, science, IT, business and caring services.
"That must be a cause for deep concern, especially in the context of the very strong message in Lord Leitch's review of the critical importance of improving our national skills base."
The huge underestimation of lost places casts doubt on ministerial reassurances about the future extent of cuts, which were also based on LSC estimates.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, told the House of Commons in November that a total of 200,000 places were expected to be cut between 2006 and 2008. The figure takes into account 350,000 extra places for adults on the employer-led Train to Gain programme.
"The important point is that we should have the courage and fortitude to see the change through," Mr Johnson told the Commons.
The LSC says the losses should be seen in the context of the 3 million adults who receive public funding for courses, which amounts to almost pound;2 billion.