Continued cuts to the adult skills budget risk wiping out adult education and training in England within five years, the Association of Colleges (AoC) has warned after research showed 190,000 course places could be lost in 2015/16 alone.

The AoC has published research based on data from its 336 member colleges which points to a bleak future for the FE sector, which has faced adult skills budget cuts of around 35 per cent since 2009 and is now gearing up to deal with the consequences of a further 24 per cent cut in 2015/16.

According to the AoC, adult education and training provision could disappear completely by 2020 if cuts continue at the same rate as they have in recent years, with courses in the health, public services and care sectors expected to be hit hardest by next year’s cuts, with the loss of 40,000 course places expected in those areas alone.

AoC chief executive Martin Doel said: “Adult education and training is effectively being decimated. 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.”

Other sector leaders and academics have thrown their weight behind Mr Doel’s comments and welcomed the AoC research, which was based on data submissions from 219 colleges and the AoC’s own estimates of the impact of cuts on its 336 members.

David Hughes
David Hughes

David Hughes, chief executive of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), said: “This is a very useful analysis of the learning opportunities which are being lost to people and to the economy. Over one million opportunities have disappeared in funding cuts since 2010 and the AoC rightly sets out that more cuts means even fewer opportunities.

“Our businesses face two big challenges – low productivity and skills shortages, particularly at intermediate levels. And with people facing up to working until a later pension age, we need more re-training, not less.

“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 next government will need to find new ways to fund learning and skills for people aged 19 and over because the cuts have gone too deep now.

“I have been saying for the last year that we are facing a skills crisis. The cuts to come lead me to the same conclusion as AoC – namely 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.”

Ewart Keep
Ewart Keep

Professor Ewart Keep, director of Oxford University’s centre on skills, knowledge and organisational performance, said: “The AoC has produced an alarming, but realistic analysis of the current and potential impact of spending trends on adult education.

“In the light of earlier cuts in public post-19 spending – of the order of 35 per cent over recent years – the latest reductions raise the prospect of provision reaching a tipping point, from which subsequent recovery could be very difficult.

“Cumulative cuts of this magnitude are extremely difficult to absorb, and mean that those colleges and other providers who have a strong focus on adult learners may either go out of business or be forced to re-focus their attention on younger pre-19 students.”

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said: “These cuts are a devastating blow to colleges and risk decimating further education. Slashing budgets this harshly could be the final nail in the coffin for many of the courses that help people get back to work.

Sally Hunt
Sally Hunt

“Not everyone needs or wants to study an apprenticeship, but colleges are being forced to prioritise them over other kinds of courses. This approach will shut the door to hundreds of thousands of people who want to use adult education as a springboard for improving their skills.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills said: “We fully recognise the important role further education plays in getting people the skills they need to get on.

“That’s why we’ve committed more than £3.9bn in 2015-16 to adult learning and further education, including £770m of apprenticeship funding. We also expect to spend up to £80m on the National Colleges programme.

“While total funding has been reduced, priority has been given the areas where the most impact can be made – apprenticeships, traineeships and support with English and maths.

“Many colleges and training organisations have responded well to the need to find other income streams for skills provision and it is this approach that will help them succeed.”

Case study: Dudley College. Principal: Lowell Williams. Ofsted rating: Good (April 2013)


How will the funding cuts for 2015/16 affect your college?

“The problem we will have is that all of our adult provision has been aligned to the needs of the local community, so whatever provision we take out is going to hurt local people.

Lowell Williams
Lowell Williams

“For example, we run over 90 short-term employability courses for unemployed local adults who lack basic skills and qualifications, to help them get into a position where they can present themselves for work or further training.

“Those courses will have to be all-but cut out completely in 2015/16 to save around £500,000 of the overall amount that we need to save [more than £1.4m from the SFA budget].

“Up to £500,000 will also have to be saved by cutting the sort of part-time training opportunities that upskill people in existing low-level jobs who want to progress, perhaps by improving their computer or administrative skills, or in other technical areas such as engineering or motor vehicle.

“For example, you might get someone in a low level cleaning job at a care home who wants to become a domiciliary care worker, but they would have to progress through level one to get onto a level two or three apprenticeship.

“We also currently run around 30 skills training programmes for offenders at Featherstone Prison which help offenders progress into work after they are released. These programmes will have to go, which could save up to £400,000.

“We also estimate there will be some 30 posts at risk [through redundancies] comprising managers, lecturers, assessors and administrators.”

What do you expect the situation to be like in 2020?

“Non-apprenticeship adult funding allocations for us at Dudley College have gone from around £7.2m in 2013/14 to a projected £4.8m for 2015/16 and at this rate our adult allocation will have disappeared completely.

“By wiping out funding [for most adult skills courses], the government will be risking recreating an underclass of poorly educated adults. They will effectively be withdrawing the opportunity to train or retrain for the least able.

“It has become a matter of political expediency for all the parties to commit to ringfencing apprenticeship funding, but that won’t help the least able people, who may have left school without five GCSEs or are not able to speak English as their first language. They need help to get into work or to progress up to an apprenticeship.

“The idea that every adult is best served by an apprenticeship, if they don’t go to university, and won’t have any other training needs, is just too simplistic.”


Case study: Tower Hamlets College. Principal: Gerry McDonald. Ofsted rating: Good (December 2013)

Tower Ham

How will the funding cuts for 2015/16 affect your college?

“We will be down by about £1m on our SFA funding, which represents a 14 per cent cut that’s obviously better than the 24 per cent across the sector.

Gerry McDonald
Gerry McDonald

“It’s because we run a lot of protected English and maths provision, 1,041 learners so far this academic year, which cushioned us from worse cuts.

“We will wait and see what happens in the [May 7] general election before making final decisions on where to save money.

“If Labour win and they scrap apprenticeships below level three and rebadge traineeships as something covering all level two courses, then the whole funding landscape is going to change again, so it’s going to be quite interesting.

“It’s likely that we’ll be cutting some courses in 2015/16, but our meetings have only just started looking into that.

“We have already launched a voluntary redundancy round which could mean the loss of around 25 positions, but I can’t guarantee staff that there won’t be further compulsory redundancies.

“There is also likely to be slightly larger class sizes — at the moment we average 17 learners per class and it will be around 18— to help save money.”

What do you expect the situation to be like in 2020?

“I agree with the AoC view that the adult skills budget could be entirely gone aside from apprenticeships and English and maths funding. I expect that other courses will be entirely loan driven.

“If there is any funding on top of that, I wouldn’t expect it to be given out by the Skills Funding Agency, which is bound to become less and less relevant.

“It’s largely the lower level pre-apprenticeship training that colleges are going to be forced to cut back on [in the long-term].

“That’s bad news because a lot of people just don’t have the qualifications or skills as it is to get onto apprenticeships.

“It is going to mean less people going on to apprenticeships and an even bigger skills shortage, which is short-sighted in my view.

“English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) qualifications, which we run a lot of [1,184 learners so far this academic year], are also likely to face cutbacks.

“That could have all sorts of dangerous implications in terms of community cohesion.

“I think a [money saving] option for a lot of colleges will also be looking at economies of scale through more mergers. It’s not something we would rule in or out at the moment.”


Case study: Yeovil College. Principal: John Evans. Ofsted rating: Good (May 2012)


How will the funding cuts for 2015/16 affect your college?

“They will force us to stop running courses that would have been offered to 200 or more learners.

John Evans
John Evans

“No decision have been made yet over which courses will have to go, but I know that many of the people who will be affected will either be unemployed or low paid because they are low skilled.

“Yeovil has a reasonably low unemployment rate but a high level of low skill and low paid employees.

“One of our aims as a college has been to support more low-skilled workers into higher skilled jobs.

“It’s going to become increasingly difficult for us to do that because of these cuts.

“We don’t have many 19+ traineeships at the moment, as it was previously focused on 16 to 18-year-olds, but we are going to grow the programme for 19 to 24-year-olds now. It’s certainly worth considering as funding for traineeships is currently protected.

“I wrote to the Education Minister David Laws [on March 2] to express my concern about FE funding cuts and the affect it will have on non-apprenticeship provision and he replied by saying he was concerned.

“I don’t know what difference that will make, but you have to keep beating the drum. I don’t think that most people, even the politicians, understand yet the devastating affect these funding cuts will have on skills training.”

What do you expect the situation to be like in 2020?

“There’s no doubt that we’re a sector under threat. A big part of our budget isn’t ring-fenced, so it’s there to be shot at. We need to protect our funding however we can in order to support the skills development and economical growth of our local areas.

“I have been saying for three or four years now that we are going to reach a point where the FE sector will just be for 16 to 18 provision, apprenticeships and anyone who can afford to pay for other training themselves, as the money won’t come from the government.

“The adult skills role of colleges should be much wider than just providing for apprenticeships.

“I understand that savings have to made, as we’re living in a time of austerity, but the government is sending out a mixed message over adult training.

“It’s pushing adult skills training and retraining on the one hand, but making these funding cuts on the other, but the two do not go hand in hand.”

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  1. Mike Farmer

    I am interested in how to make this a general election issue. Tables of figures are all very well, but what is needed is adult learners themselves to raise the issue at the hustings and to challenge all parties about what their plans are.

  2. This shows every one of these colleges are not delivering what the government wants to buy – if they used traineeships to grow their 16 – 18 apprenticeships, they would be able to do far more and use some of the margin to deliver more community based adult learning

    the writing has been on the wall for years on adult funding so why have the colleges here and everywhere (and private providers) not reacted !

    but this comment wont get published as with all the others !

  3. FELecturer

    There is only so much money in the British pot. The harsh truth is that the government are not bothered about those on the lower rungs of the British ladder. They are more worried about spending foreign aid money on getting girls into education in Afghanistan and other troubled countries. Why? Because they can put this on their CV as an international achievement and work towards a well paid grand career in the EU or UN machine. Whilst government investment in British education is being slashed foreign aid has increased substantially. The only way to change things is by voting in May.

  4. Darren Carr-May

    It is my belief that everybody is fixated with the symptoms of the problem and not the cause.
    Why have learners 16-18 in long courses learning skills (albeit simulated in many vocations) that do not lead to employment.
    The job, apprenticeship, traineeship MUST be the primary aim of schools before a career in college is even considered. In my experience many learners “bounce” from vocation to vocation without ever being in the world of work.
    An employer in the UK today should have to take on an apprentice if earning a certain income. This should be mandatory. Then that learner could choose a provider for further education.
    If the learner cannot find employment then the school has failed them, and compulsory education should clear up their own mess.

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