Students taking higher education courses in colleges are receiving a worse service than their university counterparts, according to a comparison of teaching quality between the sectors.
Further education colleges have been receiving some of the worst scores in the Quality Assurance Agency's round of inspections of teaching in business studies. In the first assessment of colleges alongside universities, the higher education programmes of colleges have so far achieved an average grade of 20.3 out of 24, compared with 22.3 for universities, according to a THES analysis of 59 reports.
Universities have exhibited near universal excellence in the teaching of business studies - no university scored less than 21 out of 24. Some quality experts and college leaders have argued that the discrepancies reveal a flawed system because universities know how to "play the inspection game".
But further education chiefs fear that the QAA is planning to get tough with colleges while reducing pressure on universities. It appears to be preparing a new wave of college reviews while introducing a "light-touch" regime for higher education.
College heads feel that extra scrutiny is unjustified - especially as QAA inspections add a disproportionate burden to colleges, which may have only a handful of higher education students.
The Association of Colleges said concerns had also been raised that further education's interests were under-represented in the QAA inspection teams and in the QAA's consultation on its new quality assurance process.
Judith Norrington, AoC director of curriculum and quality, said: "More FE institutions are becoming involved in delivering higher education, but we are not being included in the process of deciding how they are inspected."
There is also evidence that some colleges are being damaged by financial problems. The AoC blamed historic funding inequalities and franchise deals in which universities do not fund their college partners properly.
Walsall College of Arts and Technology, so far the worst performer of the business studies inspection round, scored only 16. It will be revisited by inspectors after scoring badly in three out of six areas. As well as criticising Walsall for its quality management and its teaching, learning and assessment, the QAA inspectors highlighted poor learning resources as a problem.
West Cumbria College, which scored 19, was also criticised for poor learning resources. "Concerns include out-of-date buildings in a poor state of repairI Student amenities are limited with little space conducive to group working and quiet study."
A spokeswoman for the AoC said: "There is a general resourcing issue here, but there is also a problem in that there is not a generally agreed national tariff for higher education work done in colleges."
She said where universities franchised courses out to colleges, there were "undoubted cases where the universities were creaming off a substantial amount of money for their own benefit".