Organisations across the further education sector have rallied behind calls for greater government investment in adult education and training, after research published this week revealed that continued cuts could lead to provision being wiped out within five years.
The stark warning came from the Association of Colleges (AoC), which estimates that 190,000 adult learning places could be lost next year alone. The areas expected to be hit hardest include health and public services, which could lose as many as 40,000 places in the next academic year, and information and computing technology, where 10,500 places could disappear in the coming months.
If the government continues to cut funding for adult skills at the same rate, there will no longer be an adult education system by 2020, the AoC has calculated.
"Adult education and training is effectively being decimated," said chief executive Martin Doel. "These cuts could mean an end to the vital courses that provide skilled employees for the workforce, such as nurses and social care workers.
"The potential loss of provision threatens the future prospects of the millions of people who may need to retrain as they continue to work beyond retirement age, as well as unemployed people who need support to train for a new role.
"Adult education and training in England is too important to be lost, to both individuals and the wider economy."
Last month, it was revealed that the Skills Funding Agency would be reducing funding for adult education by more than pound;249 million in 2015-16 - an 11 per cent cut on 2014-15. When the pound;770 million apprenticeships budget is factored out, however, funding for other adult provision will be reduced by almost a quarter (24 per cent).
The news sparked an angry reaction in the sector. A petition by the University and College Union (UCU) against the move has so far gathered more than 20,000 signatures.
Recent funding cuts have led to falling participation, with the number of adults taking level 3 courses dropping by 17.9 per cent between 2012-13 and 2013-14.
David Hughes, chief executive of adult learning organisation Niace, said the AoC research highlighted the extent to which learning options were being lost. "More than one million opportunities have disappeared in funding cuts since 2010 and the AoC rightly sets out that more cuts mean even fewer opportunities," he said.
"The funding cuts will hit people who want to work hard to get on, will hit businesses who want to grow and will hamper economic growth. The cuts to come lead me to the same conclusion as AoC: that we should all be telling young people to get their state-funded learning in as quickly as they can, because once they hit 21 there won't be any support left."
UCU general secretary Sally Hunt accused politicians of expecting improved skills while "demolishing education".
"Calls by ministers for a highly skilled workforce look ever more ridiculous with every cut of the budget," she said. "Whether you make the argument for further education out of economic necessity or you still value the importance of lifelong learning, it is clear the government's plans will cause untold damage and need to be halted."
The AoC is calling for the government to build greater equality into the system by introducing education accounts for all students aged 19 and over, through which the government, individuals and employers can contribute. It is said that this would ensure all adult students have equivalent access to loans and grants, whether they are studying at university or at college.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said the government "fully [recognises] the important role further education plays in getting people the skills they need to get on".
"While total funding has been reduced, priority has been given to the areas where the most impact can be made: apprenticeships, traineeships and support with English and maths," they added. "Many colleges and training organisations have responded well to the need to find other income streams for skills provision; it is this approach that will help them succeed."