Courses cut as higher fees turn adults off education, Neil Merrick reports and, below, finds his own learning ambitions thwarted.
Thousands of adults are turning their backs on further education as colleges raise course fees in line with government demands for learners to dip further into their own pockets.
An average 10 per cent increase in fees this year is likely to be followed by a much larger rise from September, with some colleges deciding it is no longer worth offering courses not seen as priorities by ministers.
It is not just so-called leisure courses that are under threat. Adults wishing to study languages are also being forced to pay significantly more, especially if courses do not lead to recognised qualifications.
And there is evidence that the cut in classes is having a major impact on the way colleges are seen by their local community.
At City college, Norwich, where adult numbers have halved to fewer than 7,000 in two years, it no longer worth opening every night of the week.
"We used to be a real hive of activity in the evenings," says college principal Dick Palmer. "It's very quiet now. We are locking up at 6pm some nights. It's a very poor use of resources."
Liverpool community college expects adult numbers to fall by 3,000 next year to 14,000. The college will also no longer waive fees for adults on limited incomes, charging all learners that do not qualify for free tuition at least 20 per cent.
"We don't know what the impact will be," says vice principal Maureen Mellor.
If too many courses disappear, the college may be forced to close some centres. This could threaten Skills for Life programmes that help adults to improve their literacy and numeracy. "There is not enough money in the system to pay for all the priorities," she adds.
A MORI survey carried out last year for the Department for Education and Skills suggested adults are willing to pay more, but there is concern that what happens on the ground may not always reflect what people tell pollsters.
Chichester and Eastleigh colleges have both seen dramatic falls in adult enrolments this year - mainly due to them scrapping courses that no longer attract funding from the Learning and Skills Council. Where LSC support is still available, learners will be expected to pay 37.5 per cent of course costs by 20078, compared with a quarter last year.
Burton college is focusing on courses that lead to recognised qualifications or progression within FE to ensure it does not lose funds.
Enrolments are still expected to fall when a 18-20 per cent fee increase kicks in next year.
"We are concerned that it will hit demand from poorer communities rather than the middle classes," says principal Keith Norris.
Christine Moore, interim principal at Keighley college, says costs have partly risen to cover exam fees - even though many adults are not bothered about gaining qualifications. Where students do not pass an exam, or fail to turn up, it reduces the college's success rates.
A forthcoming survey by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, commissioned by the LSC, will show that leisure learning is being squeezed but that, where courses still attract LSC support, enrolments have not generally been affected by this year's fee increases.
Mick Fletcher, LSDA research manager, is concerned that some courses are cut by colleges before they have tested whether learners will accept higher prices. "It's not necessarily clear that adults will refuse to pay," he says.
The LSC predicts it will lose 230,000 adult students by 20078 as money is focused on Skills for Life programmes, 16 to 19-year-olds and adults seeking their first level 2 GCSE-equivalent qualification.
Geoff Daniels, director of funding and strategy at the LSC, says these priorities are "widely accepted" in the sector. "If people want other courses, they must accept that making a more realistic contribution towards the cost of learning is a price that has to be paid," he adds.