The quality of higher education courses delivered through further education colleges is damaged by a lack of money, according to an exclusive analysis of Quality Assurance Agency inspection reports by The THES .
The findings come as the Calderdale College Corporation this week became the first higher education provider to fail a QAA subject review on the basis that its "learning resources" were inadequate, even though its academic standards were fine.
According to the analysis for The THES by Napier University's academic development officer Roger Cook, almost every old university inspected since subject review was introduced in 2000 has been commended by QAA reviewers for the quality of their cash-dependent facilities such as libraries and computing facilities. But less than a third of colleges have been similarly praised.
Under the subject-review system, which replaced universal teaching quality assessments and has been applied only to further education colleges and Scottish universities, QAA inspectors make judgements on three areas of a department's quality: teaching and learning, student progression and learning resources. One of three judgements - commendable, approved or failing - is given for each area.
While the QAA described learning resources as "commendable" in 96 per cent of departments in old universities and in 65 per cent in former polytechnics, it commended resources in only 28 per cent of further education colleges.
Geoffrey Alderman, academic dean of the American Intercontinental University in London and former pro vice-chancellor for quality assurance at Middlesex University, said: "The analysis confirms the serious under-resourcing of the further education sector."
Professor Alderman, who has worked as a QAA inspector, said: "If the government is looking to get 50 per cent of the under-30s into higher education through higher education in further education colleges, it better make certain that the further education colleges are resourced at the requisite level. In my experience, college lecturers are careful and thorough, but if you ain't got the resources to teach properly, you ain't got the resources."
Mr Cook said that colleges were being hit harder under the subject-review system than under the TQA because learning resources included less tangible cash-dependent areas such as staff development and staff research activity, as well as the quality of library and computing facilities.
Only Calderdale College, Halifax, of the ten further education colleges that have failed subject reviews, failed under the learning resources category. At Calderdale, the inspectors said that they had confidence in the academic standards of two higher national certificate and two higher national diploma courses, accredited by Edexcel, but said "the quality of learning resources is failing".
The inspectors also found "significant staffing difficulties". They were concerned that the college "could not substantiate" its claim that the programmes were taught by full-time lecturers, as most new staff had been recruited on hourly paid contracts.
They conclude: "Significant improvement is required urgently if the provision is to become at least adequate."
Maria Gilling, vice-principal for learning and achievement at Calderdale, said that while the college had no dispute with the QAA's findings, it was "frustrating" for all colleges to compete with better-resourced universities.
She said: "We get teaching and learning money from the funding council, but we don't get capital funding - and there is a big capital element in courses such as computing."