We face a dilemma. Ministers' unequivocal commitment to stable funding for post-school education budgets in 20056 is welcome. They found extra cash to add to the funds from the Learning and Skills Council.
This ensures that money for adults overall can be sustained at the same level for that year. Ministers also made it clear that the LSC should not neglect "other further education" - all that work that falls outside the National Qualifications framework and the council's targets. With luck, providers will also temper any move to cut swathes of uncertificated work.
Despite this, depressing stories abound. For example, in one college, the local LSC recommends cutting the most basic courses in order to boost what can be offered at level 2 (equivalent GCSE grade A to C). What price widening participation and progression routes there, let alone student choice? Another sees fees for older ITstudents soaring from pound;40 to pound;110 - fine for well-educated and well-heeled folk, but hardly for adults struggling to get by on a pension just over the level where income support kicks in.
What the extra funding gives is a short breathing space with time for a rethink about what they offer. They will need to strengthen what they are offering by way of full courses at level 2 and above.
At the same time, they will need to maintain a broad curriculum that continues to meet the wider needs of the communities they serve. Also of course they need to balance their books.
If 20056 offers a breathing space, 20067 looks like the most challenging year in a decade. This is partly the product of the post-16 sector's success in persuading more young people to stay on, coupled with the bulge in the population of 16 to 19-year-olds. The bulge will last until 2010, and then it will fall away dramatically.
Little new public money is likely to be available to address the overload in demand that we are set to see in the second half of this decade. It will be adults who lose out. Yet two in every three jobs to be filled in the UK over the next decade must be done by adults. There will be women returners, older people staying on or returning to work, and migrants. There are too few young people to fill all the vacancies when the baby- boomer generation retires.
It is a problem further education itself will need to address in its own workforce. The entitlement to a full level 2 qualification may meet the needs of some of these groups, but not everyone will be ready for that scale of commitment at the start.
Then again, as the Government's imminent strategy for older people should make clear, silver surfers have much to gain: in financial education, in developing skills to volunteer, to keep fit, to care for others and to develop new skills. All this will need the imaginative help of educators able to work with adults. So, too, will the work flowing from the childcare strategy.
The mental health strategy highlights new roles for post-school education.
Neighbourhood renewal thrives where there is dedication to learning communities. Overall, the adult learning agenda is growing in importance, and we can ill afford to see a reduction in investment.
If there is no new public money to be found for post-school education and training, who else can contribute? Increased fees from employers and individuals would help, and both pay less than their counterparts in most other industrial countries. But if we are not to destabilise the system, their contributions will be modest in the short run. There is little hope of redistribution within education: schools and universities are powerful advocates for their own interests. Health investment will carry on increasing. It is hard to see a fall in defence spending until military adventures wind down.
So, to the dilemma. We need to argue for a larger share for adults. But if there is little prospect of shifting resources enough to make a difference, how do we manage best? Institutional leaders must be more assertive when defending local needs in talks with planners, and we need a recognition that sophisticated planning is inhibited by an obsession with targets. It is learning, not targets, that really matter.
Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education