Taxpayers back ministers on fees
Taxpayers say the government subsidy for adult education should be slashed and students told to pay more for their courses.
Ministers under criticism for cutting funding and forcing an increase in course fees have taken heart from the results, which reveal strong public support for their policy, despite the concerns of colleges.
The results of the survey of 4,000 people surprised its commissioners, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, so much that officials questioned another 1,700 people.
The second time, they asked whether "the Government" should pay more, rather than using the word "taxpayers".
Even after the change in terminology, people believed individuals should pay more than 80 per cent of the costs of personal development courses.
Ministers have called for fees amounting to only 50 per cent of costs.
Alan Tuckett, director of Niace, said: "The survey also shows that the closer you are to actually participating in a course, the more you believe in public subsidy.
"The middle classes want a high level of subsidy because more of them want to take part. Younger people want more subsidy, because more of them want to take part."
But the report revealed that retired people believe that individuals should pay more of the costs of their courses, while those in work believe employers should make a greater contribution.
Mr Tuckett said running the second survey, switching references to the taxpayer for references to the Government, was not an attempt to rig the results, but to test how well-informed and settled public opinion was.
He said: "There are genuine conflicts and tensions between what people believe. There is a tension between what is in the public interest and what is in the popular interest - do we need an informed, educated populace?"
Niace's objections were not to the principle of higher fees but to the chaotic implementation and the risk of unfairness to those on lower incomes, he said.
"We are not averse to moving towards 50 per cent fees, as long as it is a phased move and takes account of those people that can't afford to pay," he said.
The people polled were also unconvinced by arguments that basic skills courses should be free.
Instead, they said that adults should pay just over a third on average, with a similar proportion paid through public subsidy and a quarter paid by their employers.
For courses where adults could gain level 2 qualifications (GCSE-equivalent), respondents said, on average, the taxpayer should pay about a third and individuals should pay more than 40 per cent.
Employers would be expected to pay just over half of vocational courses, however, with individuals paying just over a third and taxpayers paying the rest.
Phil Hope, the skills minister, said: "All the evidence confirms that most people believe they should pay much of their own fees for personal development learning.
"Our Mori survey last autumn, and now surveys from Niace and the Learning and Skills Development Agency, all carry the message that it is right for individuals to pay more for leisure learning than the state, where they can."
Leisure learning still represented "exceptional value", even though the Government was concentrating its subsidy on skills for employability, he said.
Mr Hope said that spending on FE had increased by pound;2.5 billion since 1997, but employers and individuals who already had qualifications would have to contribute more to the cost of their learning.