Agricultural colleges' efforts to bail themselves out of financial problems by merging with higher education institutions have resulted in falling student numbers, inspectors have said.
Numbers have dropped by up to 40 per cent as colleges have joined institutions that have no experience of agriculture.
Many of the specialist colleges have been badly affected by a 20 per cent reduction in funding from the Further Education Funding Council over the past three years and a sharp decline in income from farming activities, says a report from the FEFC inspectorate.
The poor public image of farming has had a significant impact on student numbers on full-time agriculture, countryside management and equine studies courses.
The report says many colleges have not managed these changes well and have missed opportunities to become more tuned into their market.
A third of specialist agriculture colleges have merged with other institutions since 1993, which has led to "a considerable fall in the number of students on further education agriculture courses", the report says.
Agriculture colleges are already reeling from the effects of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis on their teaching and examination timetables.