Large numbers of adults will discover this autumn that they can't train as hair stylists or beauticians as they hoped because the courses have been axed.

But this year, vast numbers are being disappointed, as further education (FE) colleges up and down the country are cutting around 200,000 adult education and training course places. It's the result of a funding settlement, announced by the government-controlled Learning and Skills Council earlier this summer, which enforces strict priorities in student spending.

The high priority groups include 16- to 19-year-olds doing A-levels or vocational courses, and adults still to achieve any qualification equivalent to GCSE standard or below. But an additional stipulation limits further the type of adult courses eligible for priority treatment. They are confined to those leading to a narrow range of accredited qualifications.

So, almost without exception, colleges have found that the money left in the pot for a swathe of traditional adult education programmes is far less than in previous years. At a stroke of a minister's pen, adults have become the Cinderellas of the FE world.

But it isn't mainly the middle classes stopping off at their local college on the way home from work to attend a yoga class, or to learn more about the relative strengths of the tempranillo and pinot grigot grapes, who've been hit. These types of evening classes have, largely, been safeguarded by ring-fenced money protecting "learning for learning's sake."

In most places, the axe has fallen most damagingly on courses aimed at people with a work-related need, rather than a desire to enrich their life with an additional leisure pursuit. At South Cheshire College, in Crewe, for example, around 500 places have been cut in a variety of vocational programmes starting this month. These are, typically, courses leading to NVQ qualifications in areas such as book-keeping, hairdressing, beauty therapy and counselling.

They are aimed at, and appeal to, adults wanting, or needing, to increase their work-related qualifications to enable them to get a job with a wage that'll make a significant difference to weekly budgets. A typical student might attend classes for three hours, twice a week, on a course lasting between 14 and 35 weeks.

The reason they are treated as low priority is because their academic level is deemed slightly higher than the Level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) cut-off point enshrined in the new government rules. The vice principal at South Cheshire, Stan Cowell, expresses dismay at having to deny adults the opportunity to learn skills to enhance their life chances.

"We value every adult student in the community," he explains, "but unfortunately government decisions mean there isn't enough money to meet demand."

The course hardest hit is hairdressing, where large numbers of applicants have been turned away. And the college principal, David Collins, this week expressed a fear that even more places may have to go on similar courses starting next January. This is because he's having to accept about 100 more students in the priority 16-19 bracket than were expected at the beginning of the summer holidays. This will leave even less money to spare for vocational courses for adults.

"We've already had to put out a leaner, meaner, brochure for adult education," he says, "and now there's a chance we'll have to make more cuts."

"It's a disappointment that this is hitting the aims of widening participation in education."

Nationwide, the effects of the funding straitjacket are being monitored by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, whose members comprise the colleges and other institutions providing most adult education.

They have found confusion in many places, as colleges have rushed to absorb the implications of the new priorities and tried to salvage as much as they can from established and popular course programmes. Rather than cut courses altogether, many colleges have decided to raise fees, but this has often priced too many students out of the market and had the same effect as a course closure.

"We are finding that, as in health, there is now a form of postcode lottery in adult education," explains Andrew Smart from National Institute for Adult Continuing Education, "with different learners in different parts of the country getting a different deal."

A widespread result of the strict priorities is the disappearance of courses that serve undeniably disadvantaged sections of the adult community, but which don't meet the tight academic credentials laid down by the LSC. A particularly stark example of this exists in the heart of the Education Secretary Ruth Kelly's Bolton constituency.

Here, an educational business called Training Wise, which lays on courses in basic literacy and IT skills, largely for the local Asian community, has been forced to close down its premises altogether. This, says, the managing director Rabina Ahmad, was because of the disappearance of the grant, totalling around £1m, that it received from its parent college, Manchester College of Art and Technology.

The Training Wise building in the centre of Manchester has also been closed for the same reasons. Hundreds of adult students, the majority of them women, are, as a result, not now attending any basic skills classes at all. "The colleges were devastated when they told us about the cut in funding for adults," explains Ahmad, "but they said they had to spend the money mainly on 14- to 19-year-olds."

Training Wise argue that, given their closeness to the Asian community, they provide the only route into education for many adults, most of whom do not have the confidence to take part in mainstream college courses. The Manchester College of Art and Technology senior vice principal, Jack Carney lays the blame for the cut on the LSC funding allocation, and the new government priorities implicit in it.

"We have been unable to secure from the LSC the level of funding we need for all our proposed activities this year," he states, while maintaining, however that Manchester College of Art and Technology does provide education for the local "excluded communities."

Elsewhere, some colleges see their very viability threatened due to the cut in adult education funding. Two years ago, Sally Dicketts became principal of Oxford and Cherwell Valley College, a new institution replacing three colleges, in Oxford, Banbury and Bicester, which were deemed to be failing.

Central to the success of the new college, according to Dicketts, was the ability to increase student numbers, particularly in adult education, an objective that is now being thwarted.

"If I can't grow, I'm going to have real difficulties," she explains. The squeeze on adult education is having a variety of effects at the college. The most dramatic has been the closure of a distance-learning course, for 150 adults, offering a national qualification in working with compressed air, something used widely in hospitals and in a variety of manufacturing processes.

This course, run in partnership with the British Compressed Air Society, provides just the sort of technician level qualification regarded by the Government as key to the raising of skills in the workforce in an economy increasingly facing pressure from emerging countries such as China and India.

The shortage of cash has also scythed through funds at the college designed to help some of the poorer adults take steps to become economically self-sufficient. A group of 25 parents returning to education will now not be starting courses this month because help with childcare has had to be cut, and others are pulling out of courses offering starter qualifications in health and social care because they can't afford the exam fees of up to £100, which the college is now having to charge.

Overall, Dicketts is critical of a policy that reduces the overall funding for adult education and tries to control the content of those courses that do qualify for subsidy. "If you have a Government that is really keen on up-skilling the workforce," she argues, "you can't prescribe the education they choose.

"Anyway, the most important skill needed in the economy is emotional intelligence, and you get that by engaging in any and every form of education."

The LSC say the new priorities target those adults in greatest need, and concede that the implication is that others will have to pay more for their learning.

At the Association of Colleges (AoC), efforts continue to help colleges juggle the figures and try to squeeze every last penny out of their LSC grant, to try to minimise the cuts. But the fear is that next year, the situation will get even worse, since most of the already agreed 2.8 percent rise in overall funding will have to go on 16- to 19-year-olds and a pilot national employer training scheme.

AoC Chief Executive, John Brennan, thinks it's not too late for a ministerial change of heart. "We think the Government should accept that no adult should be left behind when it comes to training. They should look again at the allocation of funds."