While unpopular courses are being scrapped in alarming numbers across the sector, a valiant attempt by a London college to keep open a tiny course in the obscure art of making horses' saddles has led to condemnation from the quality watchdog.
The Quality Assurance Agency this week branded Capel Manor College's higher national diploma course in saddlery technology "failing". It found that there were so few students on the course that they had to take lessons with colleagues sitting lower-level qualifications in the same discipline.
The QAA reviewers said the HND students were often taught with further education students.
"There is little distinction between the demand of tasks and assignments set for higher education and further education students," the QAA said.
"When HND and further education students are taught together, it is not always apparent how the level of their learning differs."
It added: "Some HND students commented on a lack of intellectual challenge in their teaching."
Capel Manor, based near Enfield in Greater London, is primarily a further education college specialising in "land-based" studies. It teaches higher education students. It is understood that there are one or two students on the HND in saddlery.
The low demand for places on the course caused other problems. The QAA said that although students benefited from small numbers in class, the exception to this was during group work. "Students cannot always take part in this as some classes have only one or two students," the reviewers said.
There was a staffing problem, as the HND was "highly dependent on a few key staff", which "could present difficulties if any of these staff become unavailable".
While demanding "urgent improvement" before the HND can even be judged to be "at least adequate", the QAA offered one small comfort. It said: "Many of the difficulties students encountered are a result of the college policy of offering programmes regardless of low level of demand. The difficulties posed... need to be viewed against the greater access to higher education that the college's flexibility in this matter allows."