Changes to funding at the LSC are hitting those students the Government most wants to reach, says Tony Tysome
Anyone who knows Nehemiah Small could not doubt his commitment to learning or his determination to do what it takes to become a qualified social worker.
Since arriving in the UK from Jamaica five years ago holding just a high school certificate and with experience as a tractor mechanic, the -year-old has put every effort into pursuing his chosen career.
Getting a job as a support worker helping people with learning disabilities convinced him that his next step had to be gaining a university social work degree.
An access to higher education course at his local Greenwich College, with a fee of just £120, seemed the quickest and most affordable route.
Though it would mean working part time with a loss of £500 a month in pay, he calculated that he and his pregnant wife could just about scrape by until he entered higher education and qualified for a student loan.
He signed up for the course and threw himself into studying. It was then that the college dropped a bombshell. They told him that the Government was making cutbacks, which meant the fees for his course would go up to more than Pounds 900.
"I was shocked. I told them there was no way I could afford that. I would have to drop out of the course if they were going to charge that much," he says.
Luckily it turned out that the college was not planning to charge full fees until the following year, but Small was still told he would have to pay Pounds 480. With his wife now in hospital and a baby to support, finding the extra money was "a real struggle", he says.
"The only way I could afford it was to pay in instalments. But even then, I have had to borrow money to keep up with the payments."
Small is just one of thousands of students on access to higher education courses across the country who have been hit this year with big fee increases as further education colleges react to funding changes made by the Learning and Skills Council.
The LSC has been forced to make drastic cuts in funding for adult education after finding that it does not have enough money even to fund all the students in priority groups identified by the Government. Access courses, for students aged 19 and over, are among the programmes affected. By historical accident, they fall outside the national qualifications framework, which is under review. This means they are classified by the LSC as "other" provision, leaving them at the bottom of the funding pile.
John Gamble, the LSC's director of adult learning, insists that the "central importance" of access courses has been recognised, and says this will be underlined in a new higher education strategy to be unveiled by the LSC early in 2006.
Nevertheless, under LSC plans adults on access courses have to pay up to half the cost of their courses.
Gamble says: "Colleges themselves have supported a move towards a culture where learners, employers and the state share the balance of costs. With the LSC focusing more on Level 2 and basic skills, the money that is left has to work harder and we have to be clearer about people taking responsibility for their own learning."
Having already made significant sacrifices to enrol on his course, Small says he is "appalled" by this argument.
"It is really hard because people are trying to get back into education to make something of themselves, but this will stop them getting the chance to do that," he says.
Access students, like other adult learners, not only have rising course fees to contend with. Those with young children now face big increases in childcare costs and cuts in the number of places at college nurseries.
Mother-of-four Sandra Weekes was halfway through her access course at Newham College of Further Education, in London, when she was told that weekly college nursery fees for her four-year-old daughter would rise from £10.50 to £140.
She says: "I was devastated. I spoke to the nursery manager and said 'This can't be true'. I even got a reference from my tutor saying I was a good student, but they said I would have to find private funding if I couldn't afford it."
Weekes, 45, stuck to her guns and after several battles the college gave way and waived the higher fee. But she says the experience was stressful and draining.
"I had to really fight my corner. I wanted to do it for other parents who I knew would not be able to stay on the course with fees that high," she said.
Weekes says she is lucky that she enrolled before the college put course fees up as well - a move that would have prevented her from signing up in the first place. Newham's board of governors has been asked to consider increasing fees by 89 per cent to more than £1,000 a year. It is expected that about 160 fee-paying students will be affected next year.
Martin Tolhurst, Newham's principal, acknowledges that such increases will hit many disadvantaged students hard. His college invested £1 million in access courses, but the new funding regime means it has little choice but to increase fees.
He says: "All these things are mounting up and putting additional pressures on all kinds of students. The trouble is, the funders are going around saying these things are not causing problems - yet all I can see are problems as I go around the sector."
Other college heads, access course co-ordinators and adult education leaders voiced concerns about costs and lack of support for access students in a Quality Assurance Agency report published in 2004.
The report, which follows extensive research by the QAA and the Learning and Skills Development Agency, warns that the funding system for access courses, combined with an absence of LSC targets relating to access to higher education, is putting colleges under pressure to cut the courses and replace them with programmes that are better funded.
In the meantime, many access students have been left in the anomalous position of being liable to pay fees but not being eligible for financial support.
The report recommends that the Government address these issues by 2008 - including exploring the possibility of transferring funding responsibility for access courses to the higher education funding councils.
But John Thompson, an analyst at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, says a funding switch would be difficult as people on access courses are legally classified as further education students.
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that keeping access courses within the further education funding system is problematic. From the point of view of higher education, he says the fact that there are about 40,000 students on access programmes, and that they account for about per cent of all first-time entrants to higher education, means the courses are "hugely important" for widening participation.
"The trouble is, they make up only a tiny proportion of all the students in the further education sector, so further education does not view them in the same way," he says.
There are fears too that the recent review of further education by a working group headed by Sir Andrew Foster will lead to a further squeeze on access. The Foster report calls on colleges to be steered back towards their "core purpose" - addressing the Government's skills and training agenda.
According to Karen Green, chief executive of the national Open College Network, which validates most access courses, this could lead to more colleges trying to bolt traditional qualifications, such as GCSEs or National Vocational Qualifications, on to access courses, or to steer students towards foundation degrees instead.
"Unfortunately, many of these alternative courses are inappropriate for access students, who need more support to develop study skills. It is one of the unplanned consequences of this policy hiatus that could lead to many students being put off," she says.
Lesley Walker, access co-ordinator for Greenwich College, has similar concerns, as some of her courses could face closure to make way for foundation degrees.
"My worry is that if some courses are phased out, there will be a whole raft of students who are not at the right level for a foundation degree programme," she says.
Under these conditions, the Government's policy on further education could reduce the chances of it meeting its widening participation targets in higher education, she argues.
"Many of our students are from disadvantaged and ethnic-minority backgrounds - just the sort of learners the Government says it wants to encourage into higher education. Many of them also say they hope to be good role models for their children, so they can see the benefits of doing a degree. If fees continue to rise, that may not happen, and a large pool of untapped talent will be lost," Walker adds.