The adult education service is facing its biggest crisis so far as a result of a new round of Government cuts in local authority spending.
As councils began to draw up options for reducing budgets to meet tough new Government spending restrictions, there were predictions that women, ethnic minority groups and the unemployed would be hardest hit.
College principals and adult education organisations also warned that the cuts would, if implemented, lead to a "severe backlash" which would damage colleges' plans to expand by recruiting more adults.
The tough financial settlement announced in the Chancellor's Budget last month coincides with the longer-term effects of legislation which split the funding of the adult service between the Further Education Funding Council and education authorities in 1992. The traditional, non-vocational work was left to the LEAs, with vocational and qualification courses run by colleges. At the time, adult educationists warned that this divide would mean the end of the service.
Alan Tuckett, director of NIACE, the national organisation for adult learning, said the effects of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act were now being felt. Coupled with the "terrible" Budget settlement, he said, "this is a disaster for the local authority adult education service."
The chief executive of the Association for Colleges, Ruth Gee, said: "This will inevitably have an impact on colleges. The majority have contracts with the LEAs for non-Schedule 2 (non-vocational, so not funded by the Government) leisure education."
Some LEAs are considering draconian cuts to funding. Lambeth, where no political party has overall control, may cut its Pounds 6.2 million adult and community service completely. A second, less drastic option, is to greatly reduce the service, saving Pounds 5.2 million. Kent, Gloucestershire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire are among those planning to reduce adult funding as part of wider education cuts.
Leicestershire may be forced to save 2.6 per cent of its Pounds 307m education budget and Northamptonshire is meeting Environment Secretary John Gummer next Monday to protest about a Pounds 20m shortfall in its settlement Gloucestershire faces cuts of between 5 and 9.3 per cent - Pounds 80,000 to Pounds 130,000 - to cover a shortfall of 4.7 per cent in Government funding.
Geoff Black, head of education planning, said cuts would mean fewer teaching hours and classes, or closure of a centre. "We would have less flexibility to target certain groups such as women returners and unemployed people."
Graham Jones, principal of Denham College, the Women's Institute's adult education centre, said any further cuts would affect those women who were "taking early tottering steps" towards gaining qualifications.
College principals have warned that cuts in council funding would have a severe effect on the recruitment of adults - on which Government hopes of expanding the FE sector are pinned.
In Solihull, where schools are bracing themselves for cuts of up to 5 per cent, adult education is unlikely to escape.
Solihull College has a Pounds 150,000 contract for LEA adult education. Principal Colin Flint, said: "Many of our students who are training to improve their work skills started out on leisure courses.
"If the Government is serious about reaching its targets for lifelong education and training, and for the expansion of FE, it must make sure there is more, not less, adult education."
The Education Centres Association has warned that the scramble for funding was resulting in "divisive and destructive competition".