250,000 places at risk from college cuts

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Up to 250,000 students will be denied places at sixth-form and further- education colleges next year as budgets are slashed by pounds 115m. Details of grants for the next academic year show the first year-on-year cut in government funding for further education for over a decade.

The cutbacks will come as a severe blow to the further-education sector, which has met tough government-imposed targets and expanded student numbers by over 15 per cent since 1993 while slashing costs.

Among the victims will be A-level students, whose course hours will be cut, and the unemployed, who will not be able to afford tuition fees colleges could be forced to impose.

The cuts represent a reduction of 125,000 part-time student places (or fewer full-time places) compared with this year. Colleges will also have to abandon plans for an expansion equivalent to 125,000 more part-time places in 1997-98.

Almost nine out of ten colleges face a funding cut in September, some of more than a tenth of their budget, according to the Further Education Funding Council, the quango which funds colleges. Further-education leaders yesterday predicted the cuts would prove disastrous for colleges, with those worst-hit facing merger or even closure.

Sixth-form colleges, some of which produce league-table-topping A-level results, are among the chief victims of the cuts, with specialist colleges teaching art and design and agriculture also badly affected.

John Brennan, further-education development director at the Association of Colleges, said they were being driven near breaking-point. To absorb the cuts, principals faced having to make large-scale redundancies, and some would be forced to close down costly courses such as engineering or construction altogether.

Colleges are angry that, after being repeatedly told they play a central role in boosting the skills of Britain's workforce, budget cuts are now preventing them meeting the demand for training they have generated. Earlier this year ministers announced that money available to further-education colleges to fund expansion was to be removed in 1997-98 because demand for the cash was too high.

Bilston Community College, one of Britain's largest colleges, will have to axe 30,000 planned student places because of the cuts. Chief executive Keith Wymer said: "There is a huge and unmet need for education, training and retraining ... This wholly inadequate allocation may mean that that thousands of students will not be able to train and retrain."