A row over an adult education provider being “defunded” by the incoming North East Mayoral Combined Authority continues to escalate.

The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) has claimed that it faces a £1.3 million shortfall that puts 72 jobs under threat, as it is set to lose a grant it currently receives to provide a variety of learning courses.

That funding currently comes from the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA), but will be removed after the body is wound up and rolled into the larger North East Mayoral Combined Authority (NEMCA) due to come into being in May following the agreement of the region’s new devolution deal.

Incoming combined authority chiefs insist that the WEA will be able to bid for up to £16 million of its funding through a competitive procurement process to deliver adult education, that courses will still be available, and that they want to “minimise any detriment to learners”.

But the charity remains furious at the loss of its grant and learners have been staging protests outside local authority HQs, the latest of which saw a group demonstrating at Sunderland City Hall on Thursday with banners reading “stop the cuts” and “save the WEA”.

Gabrielle Sharp, a WEA user from Sunderland, said the courses had been “a life saver for so many of us” and that the threat of the WEA losing funding had been “awful for all of us”.

The 30-year-old single mum, who attends weekly cookery and art classes, added: “Having the threat of losing these courses is really stressing people. We’d be lost without the courses; there’d be no structure to our weeks. That’s why we’re protesting.”

WEA chief executive Simon Parkison claimed that the funding loss risked “vital educational opportunities” being “stripped away from our learners”.

He claimed to have been trying to meet for weeks with interim NEMCA chief Henry Kippin, which the authority says has taken place, and claimed the charity was “protected by law to receive funding”.

A NEMCA spokesperson said in a statement that it was “establishing a new provider base” to deliver adult education through open and competitive tenders.

They added: “The vast majority of providers, such as national providers, will secure contracts in this way following our well-publicised processes. This year, successful providers will be in place from August 2024.

“In addition to this our local FE colleges and local authorities will receive grant funding for AEB activity because of the significant volume of provision they deliver to local residents, including statutory provision and community learning. We are encouraging those providers outside of the grant funding scope to engage with the procurement process and seek to access up to £16m of funding available for the academic year 2024-25.

“Throughout this process we are continuing to listen to the views of different learners, providers and stakeholders.

“We recognise that through any process of change there will be an element of disruption – and we are clear about the need to minimise any detriment to learners as a result of this. We will ensure that all learners are supported to continue their learning journey as we transition.”