Colleges being inspected by the Quality Assurance Agency are penalised unfairly for their lack of resources, according to a report from the Further Education Development Agency.
The agency is preparing colleges for the mass arrival of QAA inspections of their higher education courses. It says the teaching quality inspections favour traditional universities and lack the accountability colleges are used to.
In a paper, the agency says that of all the six aspects of provision graded by the QAA, colleges get the lowest grades for "learning resources", with an average 2.69 out of 4, compared with an average of 3.68 for all institutions. The gap between the sectors is much narrower in other aspects.
The paper, written by Simeon Underwood, assistant registrar at the London School of Economics, and Peter Connell, vice-principal of New College, Durham, warns colleges to write appropriate mission statements so that they can exploit their strong points. Provision is supposed to be judged against an institution's stated aims and objectives, taking into account its mission and history.
Hundreds of colleges will have their first QAA visit over the next year, following the transfer of funding for sub-degree qualifications from the Further Education Funding Council to the Higher Education Funding Council. A batch of subjects that are popular in colleges are listed for inspections between September 2000 and December 2001.
The paper reports that further education colleges already inspected by the QAA have performed poorly compared with universities. Colleges have scored an average of 18.92 out of 24 in QAA subject reviews, compared with an average of 21.4 for old universities.
QAA chief executive John Randall warned in his annual report that "in some cases, this must give rise to a question of whether the college has the capacity to deliver" higher education programmes.
But the Feda paper says that the claim that colleges are poorer providers of higher education is "doubtful". It suggests that colleges are penalised for their relative lack of resources.
"If John Randall's diagnosis is accurate," says the paper, "one might expect to see larger gaps under curriculum design, content and organisation, and teaching, learning and assessment."
Colleges also suffer disproportionately because the QAA's peer reviewers are drawn mostly from traditional universities. They lack the necessary skills to judge higher education delivered in a different context.
Feda says that colleges are being penalised for their lack of experience. "The history of the subject review exercise provides overwhelming evidence that an institution's scores improve with time." This is often attributed to universities learning how to achieve high scores.
The QAA is also criticised for weak mechanisms for moderating the grades it awards.