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From The Socialist newspaper, 22 February 2007

Defend further education

LAST YEAR the number of adult learners in Further Education (FE) colleges fell by 17% to 700,000. Over 170 colleges reported budget shortfalls over 1 million (2.3 million in Lambeth). Courses could have fees increases of up to 15%.

Rob MacDonald Lambeth college student union

This trend, resulting from government plans to reduce adult education, has lead to job losses with the most vulnerable suffering. The harshest attacks are on English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL). Yet the government aims to cut benefits to people they see as not trying to learn English. They estimate there are 40,000 people who don't work due to poor English.

Lambeth College alone lost dozens of course places last year. At least 9,000 people are on ESOL courses' waiting lists in London. Now, adult ESOL courses will no longer be free for asylum seekers or immigrant workers, many of them on the lowest wages.

Courses will be put on by workplaces or job centres and run by private concerns. These courses don't offer the expert service that colleges can, lacking services such as libraries and computer centres and they don't understand specialist needs.

Staff will suffer further privatisation under the name 'contestability'. This means more restructuring and increased paperwork. Staff are also still fighting for pay parity with school teachers. The government say they are investing in 14-19 year old education. In reality, these measures are market-led reforms which undermine people's ability to gain the education they want.

Fortunately there is a fightback. At Lambeth college the unions and students have shown a way forward, organising a demo of 500 through Brixton and earlier this year a conference of over 100 activists. Lecturers' union UCU has now launched a manifesto for FE education and a 'Save ESOL' campaign. We should mobilise around this and take action to defend further education.

Student and teacher unity is critical. Unfortunately, the National Union of Students have done almost nothing nationally.

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