Students are being short-changed because the government is trying to meet its higher education expansion target "on the cheap", college heads and lecturers' leaders claimed this week.
The Association of Colleges and lecturers' union Natfhe were united in their condemnation of "massive" funding inequalities between colleges and universities.
But, they said, further education colleges were expected to deliver much of the government's planned higher education expansion up to 2010, largely through foundation degrees.
The Quality Assurance Agency issued a report this week exposing high dropout rates, poor library facilities and overworked staff blighting the delivery of higher education courses in further education colleges.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said: "These colleges will be the decisive factor in whether the government hits its target to get 50 per cent of under-30s into higher education, but they can't deliver high-quality higher education on the cheap. Students choose to study in further education because it is local, flexible and offers excellent support. They shouldn't be penalised by being short-changed."
The QAA report shows that almost 8 per cent of higher education courses delivered in the so-called Cinderella sector have been judged to be failing.
Of 153 inspections carried out in colleges, the QAA found 40 per cent of courses had problems with student retention, a third of libraries needed updating and overworked staff were often too busy to provide appropriate support to students. Most of the quality shortcomings were directly linked to a lack of resources.
Funding per full-time student in colleges is about £5,000, compared with £6,000 at universities, according to the AoC.
Julian Gravatt, the AoC funding and development director, said: "It is not that colleges are giving second best to students, it is that they are getting second best from the government."
The introduction of top-up fees is likely to bring about some major changes in the quality assurance regime, a former quality watchdog head has warned.
- In a book launched this week, Roger Brown, former chief executive of the Higher Education Quality Council, says there will be enormous pressure to modify the quality assurance system as fees bring about real or perceived differences in the quality of institutions and the value for money they offer.
Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The UK Experience since 1992 , published by RoutledgeFalmer, £85.00.