Why the lesson for today is don't delay

Adults may have to pay higher tuition fees in the future. Will fewer sign up?
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The Independent Online

The Government argues that the average price of an hour's tuition will rise by just 52p to £1.94, but a more realistic indicator is that, if colleges decide to pass on the full increase, the cost of a 30-week evening class will be closer to £150 than £100.

The fees hike has come about because of the larger-than-expected increase in further education students over the past five years. "We have all been too successful," says Keith Norris, principal of Burton College. "We are carrying underfunded students and are making the situation worse by running programmes for which we are not getting paid."

The Government says it cannot afford to carry on subsidising adult courses to the same extent while providing free tuition to 16- to 19-year-olds, along with adults attending literacy and numeracy classes and those working towards their first qualification at level 2.

Norris hopes to keep the cost of some classes down by increasing the fees his college charges employers for other training, but he says that adults who can't show they are using a course as a stepping stone to work or further learning should not expect the same level of support. "Most of these people could afford higher rates," he says.

More than 80 per cent of the estimated four million students in further education are aged 19 and above. Chris Hughes, who chaired a recent enquiry into adult learning for the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, says: "There is a point at which people will walk away. At some level of fees, people will say, 'I'm not doing that.'"

The report Eight in Ten: Adult Learners in Further Education, published this month, does not dispute that ministers are right to focus on adults who missed out first time round, but concludes that there must be more of an attempt to look at the impact of fees on other types of courses. Among its proposals are possible career-development loans for full-time further education students. "We know very little about the economics of adult education," says Hughes, a former chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency (LSDA).

A forthcoming study by the LSDA will show that more than half of adults are happy to pay all or part of course costs. Of 4,000 people interviewed by NOP, 28 per cent said they would borrow money if a course helped with their careers. This fell to 19 per cent for personal-interest courses.

The LSDA research manager Mick Fletcher says the study appears to support the Government's strategy of expecting adults to dip further into their pockets. Half of those surveyed said they would definitely or probably take further courses if fees increased, although they anticipated a rise of less than 20 per cent - well below the latest forecast.

"Outside higher education, the sums people are investing are not very much compared with the cost of a holiday," Fletcher says. "The argument for changing the balance between the individual and the state is not unreasonable, although the transition may be tricky."

Adults not entitled to free tuition are currently expected to pay 27.5 per cent of course costs. This will rise to 32.5 per cent next year and 37.5 per cent in 2007/08. The rise - from 25 per cent in 2004/05 - coincided with many colleges having their adult budgets cut by the Learning and Skills Council and has already led to a 230,000 fall in students.

According to the Association of Colleges (AoC), 700,000 places could be lost in the next two years because of higher fees. Julian Gravatt, the AoC's director of funding and development, says fewer colleges can afford to waive fees and are passing costs on.

In higher education, he points out, fees are paid after a student completes a course and raise extra money for universities. "Every £1 colleges extract from students replaces £1 they are losing from the Government."

But Rob Wye, the director of strategy and communications at the LSC, says many students do not realise how much the Government is subsidising their courses: "We are still talking about the state funding two-thirds of the cost of learning. It's not a bad deal."