Budget cut threat to Northern Ireland college courses for students with 'limited skills'
Key skills courses offered by further education colleges taken by thousands of Northern Ireland teenagers each year are at risk of being cut as Northern Ireland battles a bleak budget projection.
The Level 1 and Entry Level courses at the colleges are designed to help those who have left schools with limited skills, including struggles with literacy and numeracy. Those that complete the full programme gain a minimum of five GCSE grades D-G, which is sufficient for them to progress to a Level 2 programme.
They also work on a huge amount of 'soft' skills in what a college worker described as "a holistic course which is more than the sum of the resulting qualifications".
In the 2016-17 academic year, there were some 27,758 students enrolled in courses defined as 'Level 1 and below'.
However, the Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018-20 outlines a scenario where these courses are at risk.
The document warns of "potential cessation of skills programmes that offer Entry Level and Level 1 qualifications, through further education colleges and the Training for Success Programme.
"This significantly puts at risk the department's ability to offer the Youth Guarantee to all those aged 16-17 and could damage the employment prospects of thousands of the most risk disadvantaged young people, particularly when the skill of our workforce is going to become increasingly important for our economic growth and social inclusion."
A worker at the South Eastern Regional College (SERC) contacted the Belfast Telegraph to express her concern.
"The removal of Level 1 and Entry Level courses at the further education colleges will seriously reduce the provision for people whose choices are already extremely restricted," they said.
"It goes against all equality legislation and is most decidedly discriminatory.
"The most vulnerable students will have no provision at some of the main post-compulsory education establishments, with no plan or outline of replacement provision.
She added: "We also run a range of full and part-time courses for students with moderate to severe, diagnosed learning difficulties.
"These are designed to offer all learners the opportunity to gain further education and increase independent skills."
Concerns can be raised in response to the Department of Finance's briefing paper until 5pm today on the website https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk.
NUS-USI president Olivia Potter-Hughes described the budget documents as a "scorched earth vision of devastating cuts which could essentially destroy our tertiary education system".