THOUSANDS could be denied places on higher education access courses under the government's New Deal, according to the Association of Colleges.
The New Deal, which went "live" nationally last week, compels the young, long-term unemployed to go into subsidised employment, voluntary work, or full-time education for a year.
But colleges fear that the vast majority of the 118,000 New Deal "client group" will be encouraged to take up one of the employment options, rather than higher level study or access courses.
Early indications from pilot pathfinders show that around 23 per cent have gone into education and training, but most at basic skills level.
Andrew Smith, employment minister responsible for the New Deal, has made it clear that the education and training option is "primarily aimed at giving young people, who are not already qualified to NVQ level two or equivalent, a second chance to gain qualifications". An NVQ level two is equivalent to the GCSE exam.
According to the Association of Colleges, there are up to 12,000 unemployed people claiming job seekers' allowance and studying higher education access courses.
Most of these will now be brought under the New Deal, and it is feared that they will be advised to ditch their courses in favour of employment.
In a circular to all college principals, the AoC said: "Employment service colleagues remain clear that the first consideration (of the New Deal) will be to try to place individuals in employment or subsidised employment."
The AoC claims that this policy contradicts commitments to widening access to higher education made in the lifelong learning green paper.
"Access courses have played a significant role in widening access to higher education for ethnic minorities and women, and could be a key strategy in reaching the objective identified by the green paper - provided that the New Deal policy doesn't close this opportunity for many learners," said the AoC.
Paul Keetch, Liberal Democrat employment and training spokesman, has been demanding clarity on the issue from ministers.
In a written parliamentary answer, New Deal minister Andrew Smith, said:
"Approval for an Access to Higher Education course can be given where it is clear that completion of the course is the best way to enhance a young person's employability."
In a later written reply, Mr Smith added: "In the case of young people who are undertaking Access to Higher Education courses in the New Deal, the action plan will include reference to their proposed employment goal following higher education."
Mr Keetch has claimed this as a victory: "It is an important concession." Nevertheless, he warned: "We will be monitoring New Deal as it progresses and will quote the minister's answer back to him, should individuals be denied the opportunity to study and further their knowledge."