SCRIMPING on full-time staff to save cash could lower college standards, according to the Further Education Funding Council's annual inspection report.
In his third and final report before retiring at the end of this year, FEFC chief inspector Terry Melia says greater reliance on part-time staff is not always in the best interests of students.
He says pressure to cut costs is also turning principals and senior managers into accountants, sometimes at the expense of their curriculum work, while fear of redundancies is sapping staff morale.
But he insists there is little correlation between quality and funding levels. Instead, the key to high standards is good management. "The ability of college governors and senior managers to cope with rapid change and the robustness of a college's own quality assurance and control arrangements are paramount," says Dr Melia.
He says colleges should increase class sizes rather than cut teaching hours to save money.
Overall, inspection grades are similar to those in the previous two years, with 95 per cent of work satisfactory or better. Exceptions are agriculture, art and design and basic education, have experienced rapid expansion.
The report blames poor basic education provision on pressures to increase enrolments, recruitment of inexperienced teachers and lack of support for the increasing number of part-time teachers.
Dr Melia says colleges are relying more and more on part-timers to help cut costs. In some colleges they do half the teaching.
"Many part-time staff contribute up-to-date experience of industry and commerce and this benefits students," says Dr Melia. "However, there are few opportunities for part-timers to participate in staff and curriculum development."
This year's inspection grades for governance and management were slightly better than last year's. But the report finds that heavy teaching loads make it hard for department heads to fulfil management duties. Delegation of budgets has created "a pressing need for middle managers to receive financial training", while communication between senior managers and staff needs improvement in some colleges.