Friday, August 7, 1998 Published at 10:11 GMT 11:11 UK
MPs alarmed by state of further education
Growth in student numbers a "considerable achievement"
Standards at further education colleges in England are being criticised by a committee of MPs.
The colleges provide courses for both school leavers and adults, but a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee says the quality of education is disturbingly variable.
The committee says it is worried that the colleges may be seeking to attract more students - and therefore more money - without providing them with a good enough education.
At one in 10 colleges, less than half the students leave with the qualification they had expected when they first enrolled.
The committee urges the Further Education Funding Council for England to help the worst-performing colleges by "identifying strategies for success and setting challenging targets".
The report says: "Overall, the sector has responded well in terms of increasing the numbers of students and securing efficiency improvements, but more needs to be done to raise levels of student retention and achievement."
It questions the quality of some of the education provided and views as "disturbing" what it says is the "significant variability" in student achievement.
"We are particularly concerned that 10% of colleges have student achievement rates of 50% or lower, although we accept that low levels of achievement may in part be due to factors outside the college's control, such as local deprivation."
Colleges have financial incentives to attract more students and the committee says it is concerned that "some may have been seeking to maximise their income without necessarily providing more and better education".
It also notes that more than one in five colleges were assessed as being "in poor financial health", and that the number was expected to rise - due partly to the need to make efficiency savings, but also a result of "weak management".
The report is embarrassing for a government which is intending a huge expansion of further education - more than 400,000 extra student places by the year 2002.