Warning over 'devastating' further education college cuts
Cuts to further education (FE) budgets in Wales are "short-sighted" and could damage life-long learning, say teaching unions and charities.
The Welsh government is proposing £44.9m of cuts in the FE sector next year and a further £42.5m the following year.
The ATL teaching union said there would be a "devastating" impact.
The Welsh government said it would work closely with colleges "to minimise the impact of any reductions on learning".
Most of the proposed cuts will fall on post-19 further education, which is losing almost a quarter of a £160m budget.
"We're talking about very positive things here, about courses which help with the difficult to reach, which help the Neets (not in education, employment or training), those who have been out of work for a long time, courses which help people to upskill and get better jobs," said Dr Phil Dixon from the ATL union.
"And I think if those go, then a lot of people in the sector will be very demoralised."
His concerns have been echoed by the University and College Union (UCU), which said colleges would struggle to deliver the level of services needed in Wales if the cuts went ahead.
"The FE sector is a key player that should not be ignored," said a UCU spokesperson.
"It provides a lifeline for many adults who want a second chance at education, enabling them to improve opportunities for themselves and therefore their children.
"If reducing child poverty is a top priority for the Welsh government, the role that FE can play in this needs to be taken seriously and funded accordingly."
Last year there were almost 250,000 learners in FE colleges in Wales, with three-quarters over the age of 19 and many studying part time.
The colleges provide courses on a huge range of subjects including everything from basket weaving and brick laying to advanced manufacturing and engineering.
Many of the courses are vocational but academic qualifications are also offered.
The Welsh government's own analysis said the cuts would have a disproportionate impact on women, who are more likely to be adult learners, as well as those from an ethnic minority background.
It also said it would make it more difficult for those who are out of work to re-train.
The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education in Wales (NIACE) charity, said there were "wider benefits" in adult learning and now was not a time to cut the budget.
"The effect of the cuts will be a reduction of the number of adult learners in Wales and NIACE Dysgu Cymru would advocate that at such a difficult time, we should be maintaining or even increasing funding for life-long learning for all sorts of reasons," said Essex Havard from NIACE.
"There is a lot of research around the area of being an active learner and being a healthy adult, particularly in the area around mental health issues... adult learning can help people to get on with their lives after trauma, for example.
"So these are the things we'd want to talk to the Welsh government about - about the wider benefits of adult learning, and of the wider impact of those cuts on the adult learning and life-long education budget."
The Welsh government has protected provision aimed at 16-19 year olds, so post-19 further education will bear the brunt of the cuts.
Around £37m is due to be cut from post-19 learning next year, a 23% reduction from its £160m budget.
Responding to the criticisms about the cuts, the Welsh government said it had been "open about the stark reality" of the financial challenges being faced.
"But as we work through these difficult times, it is ever more important that we focus not just on the resources that are available but how we use them and what we achieve," said a spokesperson.
"We will work closely with the post-16 sector to evaluate available options and to minimise the impact of any reductions on learning.
"This will be the case for any sector that may be impacted by reductions."