An independent review of adults' computer skills has recommended free basic training for more than 11 million people, despite overstretched further education budgets prompting cuts to key schemes.
As the Learning and Skills Council admitted demand was likely to outstrip funding next year, the Independent Review of ICT User Skills recommended a universal entitlement to support for basic skills.
Estelle Morris, who chaired the review commissioned by the Government, said the number of adults in information technology provision had halved since the decision four years ago to focus on longer, qualifications- bearing courses.
She said: "We must be ambitious about the level of ICT skills in the community. Increasingly, those who are not ICT literate will find themselves excluded as technology impacts on more parts of our lives."
The recommendation came as the LSC wrote to colleges this week saying next year it was "unlikely that there will be sufficient funding to meet the high level of demand from employers and learners" for apprenticeships and Train to Gain.
However, Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, the adult education body, said it could cost more in the long run if a large part of the workforce lacked IT skills. "The price of ignorance is very high," he said.
Colleges have been told the LSC faces a potential deficit of hundreds of millions of pounds because of higher than expected recruitment.
Apprenticeships bucked gloomy predictions, with the number of over-25s doubling the 30,000 target. Train to Gain demand was also higher than expected after two years of under-recruitment.
Julian Gravatt, the Association of Colleges' assistant chief executive, said: "I wouldn't underestimate how chaotic the situation in Train to Gain and apprenticeships is for colleges."
New apprenticeships for over-25s will lose 10 per cent of their funding from August and providers will be encouraged to take more 16- to 18-year- olds recruits, which are about 6 per cent below target.
Simon Waugh, chief executive of the National Apprenticeships Service, welcomed the continued strong recruitment. "Employers seemed to have been quite burned from the last recession when they laid off lots of people and cancelled lots of apprenticeships," he said. "I think they recognise that they threw the baby out with the bathwater."
Colleges are also expecting their maximum contracts for training to be cut while a special reduced rate for Train to Gain is piloted for large companies to see if the LSC can benefit from economies of scale.
All Train to Gain funding will be lower than expected, with the tariff per student rising only 1.5 per cent, in line with other provision, rather than 4.5 per cent. The LSC said it was no longer necessary to have incentives for the scheme to grow.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, said it turned the clock back a year to when many providers found Train to Gain unviable. "The danger is major providers could withdraw from the programme."