A report by the Quality Assurance Agency says that, of 45 institutions it evaluated during 2013-14, 31 had been found to meet or exceed expectations in all areas. But 14 were told that they required improvement in at least one area, and six of them were told that they did not meet UK expectations in at least one area.
Key shortcomings identified include a failure at some colleges to recognise that higher education provision “needs different and distinct management and governance systems” to further education, especially in relation to student engagement and enhancement of learning.
The report also criticises some institutions for their provision of information for students and for their partnerships with employers.
The QAA says that, while it is “not possible” to establish a causal link between unsatisfactory judgements and the often limited size of the higher education cohort in a further education institution, some colleges have recognised that “this may be a significant factor”.
“Some providers…have missions and strategic goals that are orientated to a further education or sixth form environment rather than higher education,” the report concludes.
Many colleges were praised for their higher education provision, with 11 of the 45 receiving one or more “commended” judgements.
Some of the highest performers in the sector were agricultural colleges, and the report says that further investigation could help to identify whether the “central role” such institutions play in delivering their core subjects at higher education level was related to their success.
Anthony McClaran, the QAA’s chief executive, said many colleges did “extremely well” at providing work-related higher education.
“College higher education is very diverse,” he said. “It does a great job at widening participation and increasing the range of courses students can choose to study. Still, we have found that a few colleges need to focus more strongly on developing the robust higher education ethos that we rightly expect from all UK providers.”
Martin Doel, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said the report confirmed that colleges “are providing an excellent learning experience for local people”.
“Colleges are held in high regard by local employers, their community and they have a strong track record in delivering higher level qualifications,” he said. “It is time for the next government to recognise this good practice and support colleges by giving them the power to award higher technical and professional certificates in partnership with employers.”