COLLEGES will shut their doors to thousands of Britain's poorest people this autumn as funding cuts force the closure of courses and the restriction of intakes.
An estimated 250,000 students will be excluded nationally as GCSE, A level and vocational courses bear the brunt of the cuts. The disadvantaged, both school-leavers and adult returners, rely on these courses to improve their employability and win places in higher education. Colleges warn that wealthier fee-paying and industry-sponsored students are likely to replace them.
Lewisham College in London is cutting 1,766 places alone from next month, meaning no education for between 1,200 and 1,500 local people. With unemployment reaching 20 per cent in some parts of its catchment area, staff say this is a disaster for educational opportunity.
Geoff Sorrell, the college's academic planning officer, said: "Everyone is gutted. It is a complete reversal of what we believe in at Lewisham. Local students are likely to be hit most. We are likely to draw more from the middle-class market which pays for courses."
The college has sent a letter to all local MPs explaining the crisis. The letter says that the college managed to expand by more than half over the past four years while reducing costs by 26 per cent. It says that curtailing provision comes as a "bitter blow".
Nationally, colleges received Pounds 245 million less than their 1997-98 bid to the Further Education Funding Council. Colleges are also having to absorb a further Pounds 100 million cut following the loss of cash that had been available to subsidise additional student growth. The effect will be that colleges will seek to boost income from other sources such as industry and by offering more lucrative "leisure" courses.
Job losses are also threatened across the sector. Experienced, and so more expensive, staff are likely to find themselves top of the hit-list. Managers say that extensive redundancies and other debilitating effects of underfunding would damage colleges' long-term ability to provide education.
Paul Goddard-Patel, assistant principal of Bilston Community College, said that his institution might have to exclude up to 30,000 students in the face of a Pounds 4.5 million cut next year. He said: "The harshness of the 1997-98 funding settlement means that there is a real danger that the fabric of the delivery mechanism will be severely damaged."
Lecturers' union Natfhe is to launch a campaign in the autumn in defence of further education, which it hopes will attract support from other unions and college employers.