Taxpayers loath to subsidise adult learning, survey finds

15th May 2009 at 01:00
One in 5 adults says basic skills courses should not be underwritten and learners should pay more

The taxpayers' subsidy for adult education should be cut, despite protests in further education about the falling number of learners, according to a survey.

As 39 per cent of colleges reported an expected drop in adult learner numbers next year, along with a budget cut of nearly 4 per cent, the poll of more than 4,000 adults by Niace, the adult education body, found that one in five believed even fully funded courses, such as for basic skills, should not be publicly subsidised.

But it found more support for funding basic skills courses in maths or English and for courses up to level 2 (GCSE equivalent) than for vocational learning and studying for personal interest.

Alan Tuckett, chief executive of Niace, said many people who did not feel they had any prospect of taking up study felt adult learning should no longer be part of the welfare state.

"Those surveyed felt that the private benefits of learning require greater investment from the individuals participating," he said.

"Yet participation surveys over the past two decades have shown that without active public policy measures, people who benefited least from education and training at school are markedly less likely to engage in lifelong learning as adults."

Respondents were asked to say what proportion of various courses should be paid by the state, employers or individuals. Unemployed people proposed the largest average state contribution at Pounds 6.38 for every Pounds 10 of the cost of a basic skills course, but, in fact, such courses are fully funded.

The findings give some support to the government view, backed by Lord Leitch's review, that a rebalancing of the proportion of funding from taxpayers, individuals and employers was needed, although public opinion would imply a more dramatic shift.

Those in lower socio-economic groups, whom the report says have generally benefited least from compulsory education, are more likely to support larger subsidies.

The survey, carried out for Adult Learners' Week, comes as the Association of Colleges revealed most of its members are struggling to recruit enough adult learners.

About six in 10 of the 59 colleges surveyed say they will not recruit the expected number of students this year; 82 per cent have seen their allocation cut mid-year, in a few cases by up to 30 per cent.

A quarter are bucking the trend by recruiting above their expected numbers, but 77 per cent are planning fee hikes that may have an impact on next year's recruitment, while they face an average 4 per cent cut in adult education funding for 2009-10.

Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the AoC, said: "This is the fourth year running that the numbers have fallen. People are not making as much noise about it because they expect it."

Figures obtained by the Conservatives have shown women made up the largest proportion of adult learners and suffered the biggest decline over the three years to 2007-08, with a 30 per cent drop, or 866,000 fewer women studying.

Among men, the fall was 23 per cent, amounting to just 375,000 because of the lower numbers studying at the start of the period.

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