Three-quarters of the 250,000 would-be students who face losing the right to free courses under new funding rules are women, the largest survey yet of the impact of changes to adult education funding has found.
A survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) found that more than one in 10 of all female adult learners would be affected by the loss of free education for many students on benefits, which begins in September.
Drawn from surveys of the student body at 35 colleges in London and the North East of England, the AoC poll challenges claims made by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in its impact assessment of the changes, published last November.
The assessment predicted that the proportion of women in adult FE would rise from 54 to 55 per cent in 2015. But it assumed that removing free education for over-24s on all benefits except jobseekers' allowance and some disability benefits, and offering loans instead, "will not themselves have any impact on learner numbers".
At Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, assistant principal Liz Armstrong said 17 per cent of adult students would be affected. It was unlikely that students on benefits would take a pound;1,200 loan to cover full-time course fees.
She said: "All they will know is that they can't go to college. They will either have to pay massive loans or massive fees."
In any case, BIS will not introduce loans until 2013, two years after some students have already lost funding. It has so far missed its planned date to launch a consultation on the loans system by three months.
Joy Mercer, director of education policy at the AoC, said: "People receiving these types of benefits just can't afford to pay hundreds of pounds out of their own pocket for courses. It doesn't make any economic sense to block people on benefits from gaining the skills that will help them take that important step into the jobs market."
Alan Tuckett, chief executive of adult education body Niace, said: "We have had decades of improvement in the opportunities for women, but now we are turning back the clock."
Disabled people were also affected in large numbers, with 33,000 hit by the loss of funding. And in London, ethnic minority students were dramatically over-represented, at 67 per cent of the total.
A BIS spokesperson said they could not comment on the survey's findings without seeing a detailed breakdown. But she added: "The current financial situation has required the Government to make choices about the best way to invest public money in skills. It is critical that public investment is focused where its impact can be maximised and where the market failures are strongest."
Women are big losers as free courses right is axed
Original headline: Women are the big losers as right to free courses is axed