Adult education in Northern Ireland faces cuts and damaging disruption to vital links across the service when colleges become independent in the autumn, the Northern Ireland Council for Adult Education warned this week.
A currently well-co-ordinated adult and community education service could be seriously undermined by the creation of market-led funding mechanisms, it says in a strategic paper on the effects of splitting the service from FE. The separation will also make it more difficult to plan a coherent system of progression from basic skills through to higher vocational and academic awards.
The council was created three years ago to co-ordinate and develop adult education. Its analysis echoes the warnings made by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education four years ago during the passage of the 1992 Further and Higher Education Bill, which split vocational and non-vocational adult education in England and Wales. Local authorities kept control of the non-vocational element but with no statutory requirement on them to maintain the service. So leisure programmes and those not leading to vocational qualifications were cut severely.
The split in Northern Ireland "could also seriously affect the funding, and consequent survival, of the adult and community education sector", the paper claims.
Good relations established with voluntary sector providers may also suffer in what is likely to be a much more competitive field after incorporation, where colleges will be seeking to maximise enrolments and income to meet targets.
"There is a danger that competition for resources within colleges will be to the detriment of adult education in general and in particular to adult basic education, with its necessarily low student staff ratios," says the council.
The council says the learner may suffer from restrictions on types of programme offered and mode of delivery.
It goes on: "There is the additional possibility that overall provision within the sector will suffer, as voluntary and statutory providers compete for resources rather than complementing each others' provision. It is essential that any new funding methodology takes cognisance of these risks." It was a failure to secure a firm funding policy to underpin adult education in England and Wales that is generally acknowledged as the main reason that LEAs were able to make draconian cuts to the service.
The paper is particularly concerned with the needs of deprived adults, arguing that resources must be earmarked to raise the generally inadequate level of adult basic education in colleges. "The earmarking of funds for specific types of development may well assist in targeting areas of social need as, for example, the present arrangements for reduced course fees for students in receipt of state benefit. Such provision must be protected."
In the reorganisation the council wants to ensure that consultation with, and participation of, local users and providers occurs in the planning of adult and community education.