The new job-seeker's allowance, which replaces unemployment benefit and income support from October, could have a "devastating" effect on further education colleges and access to study, adult guidance advisers heard last week.
The National Association for Educational Guidance for Adults, which organised a conference on the allowance in Edinburgh on Friday, describes the measure as "coercive and draconian". The association believes 250,000 claimants in the UK will be worse off and that it will be more difficult for the unemployed to take up courses of study of more than 16 hours a week before entitlement to benefit is affected.
Anne Southwood, adult guidance co-ordinator in Lothian, who chairs the Scotland and Northern Ireland branch of the association, said it was ironic that another barrier was being erected during European Year of Lifelong Learning.
Dan Finn of Portsmouth University, who formerly led the independent Unemployment Unit in London, told the conference that the Employment Service was increasingly making its own definitions of full-time and part-time courses, irrespective of what college prospectuses may say. Regulations recently issued to jobcentres clearly implied that unemployed claimants cannot undertake full-time courses even on a part-time basis.
Mr Finn described the position in Scotland as "particularly messy and confusing" since regulations north of the border appear to envisage both a 16-hour rule and a 21-hour rule. He suggested that the more flexible FE colleges can be, in shifting courses to evenings and weekends, for example, the more accessible they will be to students on benefit. A survey south of the border had shown that only a third of colleges had that flexibility.
But Liz Speirs, head of guidance at Telford College in Edinburgh, feared that colleges could suffer under their new funding formula if students on benefit dropped out and course completion rates, a key performance target, fell.