Schools standards chief Chris Woodhead has signalled a tough new approach to college inspections when Ofsted takes over as the further education watchdog.
Mr Woodhead, chief inspector of schools, this week attacked failing further education colleges, student absence and drop-out rates and grade inflation by institutions.
In his annual lecture, held at the Royal Society of Arts in London, Mr Woodhead said: 'Future inspection will, in order to ensure all students have access to the teaching of the highest possible quality, pay particular attention to this central dimension of a college's work."
Ofsted will take the lead in most inspections of further education colleges under provisions in the Learning and Skills Bill making its way through Parliament.
Many in further education fear that Ofsted's heavily prescriptive and interventionist approach will be unsuited to colleges.
David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, sought reassurances from Mr Woodhead after his speech. Mr Gibson was concerned that Mr Woodhead might seek to undermine colleges' self-assessment and replace it with 'snapshot' external assessments by Ofsted.
Mr Gibson said: "He did not say that it had to be one or the other. He accepted that both self-assessment and external assessment were necessary.
It is going to be a case of watch this space, but I think colleges are quite happy to have accurate descriptions [of standards]."
Mr Woodhead backed government moves to encourage greater diversity in higher education.
He said: "The world of higher education ought, if it is to make a properly varied response to the diverse needs of its potential students, to contain a wide variety of institutions. Some will be more into globalisation than others. Some will choose to forge the closest possible links with their local labour market."