Judgments on the quality of teaching and learning on offer to students taking higher education courses in colleges of further education are "overwhelmingly positive", a report has found.
Analysis of 51 audits of higher education courses in 46 further education colleges by the Quality Assurance Agency shows that 99 per cent of judgments on the quality of "learning opportunities" were "commendable" or "approved".
However, the report describes assessment as "an area of some difficulty", with some colleges putting too much emphasis on students' technical ability at the expense of their knowledge and analytical skills.
It also raises concerns about plagiarism, a lack of resources and high dropout rates on a few courses.
The report covers provision for some 6,000 students between 2005 and 2007, and shows that auditors had confidence in academic standards in 90 per cent of cases, limited confidence in about 4 per cent and no confidence in about 6 per cent.
On the quality of learning opportunities, three programmes in two colleges received a judgment of failing in one aspect.
Five audits revisited colleges that were previously judged to have been failing, but they found that all had improved in the intervening period to reach a satisfactory standard.
The report identifies a "substantial" amount of good practice, and it praises the vocational relevance of the curricula, the responsiveness of colleges to student views, and the commitment, support and accessibility of staff.
In most cases, colleges provide a "highly supportive" learning environment for students.
"This is a considerable achievement for staff, particularly those who have substantial teaching commitments to further education programmes and who usually teach for more hours each week than their counterparts in higher education institutions," the report says.
While assessment criteria were generally set at appropriate levels, in four cases, including one masters programme, assessments were deemed insufficiently challenging.
And although most colleges had rigorous moderation processes and procedures for dealing with plagiarism, in cases where this was absent auditors found "many examples" of undetected plagiarism in samples of student work.
A few audits indicated that the development of research skills, analytical thinking and critical evaluation skills presented "a continuing challenge" to some staff and students.
And while completion rates were generally high, auditors encountered several instances of high dropout rates, with as few as 29 per cent of students finishing some courses.
Auditors also had "serious concerns" about learning resources in a small number of colleges, including a lack of quiet study places, limited library opening hours and insufficient book and journal stock.
On a few programmes there were not enough staff to match the needs of students, said the review.
The report advises colleges to monitor their high levels of academic support to make sure that this does not compromise independent learning, and it says that colleges should increase opportunities for staff scholarship.
Audits confirmed that close cooperation with a higher education institution could help colleges with quality assurance.
From May, further education colleges will be able to apply to the QAA for the power to award two-year foundation degrees without needing a partnership with a university as the awarding body.
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