Hundreds of colleges are poaching students in turf wars far outside their local catchment areas, despite a government policy urging them to stick to their localities.
Figures released for the first time by the Further Education Funding Council show the full extent of the competitive and often aggressive expansion encouraged under the previous government.
The figures, based on individual student-record data from 1997-98, reveal that almost a third of the sector's 440 colleges (129) are recruiting students from more than 50 local authority districts. More than 70 of these colleges are providing in more than 100 districts, while 16 colleges provide in more than 300 districts.
As The THES revealed last month ("Poaching colleges under fire", February 26) 75 colleges are operating in Kent, an area that is supposed to be served by just seven local colleges.
While some provision is made through legitimate partnerships with national organisations, much of it is made through controversial franchise arrangements, widely criticised by ministers and quality chiefs.
Among the 16 colleges providing in more than 300 areas is Bilston Community College, Wolverhampton, which was recently given the worst ever inspection report by the FEFC. Bilston, which provides in 361 of the 366 possible districts, was attacked by lecturers' union Natfhe for being a "juggernaut out of control".
Halton College, also one of the 16 major offenders, is under investigation by the FEFC and the National Audit Office.
Halton's widespread franchised provision has already been criticised by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. Ministers have said:
"Franchised arrangements should not normally operate well outside the college's area."
As well as tough new controls on franchising, cash for franchised provision will be cut by one third under funding council plans to rein in errant colleges.
Halton College has blamed this policy shift for its plans to make 147 staff redundant, cutting staffing levels by a third. Halton provides in 339 districts, and its franchised provision accounts for 65 per cent of its work.
John Brennan, director of development at the Association of Colleges, however, defended the franchise principle:"This shows that further education is not a purely local phenomenon. Many colleges have national specialisms, and franchising has a place in the scheme of things."