Colleges' efforts to improve standards and access were checked this year simply because of cash cuts and financial worries, according to the annual Further Education Funding Council inspection report.
Jim Donaldson's first annual report as chief inspector said that financial constraints in 1996-97 increased college debt with the result that fewer places could be available in further education.
A 5 per cent efficiency saving was imposed in 1996 on top of savings calculated at 28 per cent between 1993 and 1996. This was compounded by the Conservative government's announcement that the demand-led element of funding, worth around Pounds 100 million to colleges in 1996-97, would be withdrawn from 1997-98.
The chief inspector said that the financial constraints had forced college managers to rethink existing commitments and hampered their ability to develop long-term strategies. Despite this, colleges were, by and large, well managed he said.
The report, Quality and Standards in Further Education in England 1996-97, credits the sector with a generally sound performance. Some lessons, especially theory lessons, were said to be dull and uninspiring.
However, just under two-thirds of the 18,721 lessons inspected were awarded either grades one or two (excellent and good). Weaknesses that outweighed strengths were found in 8 per cent of lessons inspected. But on reinspection, most colleges had successfully implemented action plans to improve weak provision.
There was criticism of the vast number of qualifications offered by colleges. The report says that there are more than 17,000 different qualifications awarded by more than 500 different awarding bodies.
It says: "The many qualifications available are not always valued and understood by students and employers, and are a serious impediment to effective and efficient management of the curriculum at college level." The report recommends a national initiative to extend modularisation.
Overall, pass rates have improved in both GCE A level and GNVQs. A growing number of colleges are making efforts to increase their pass rates by setting and meeting educational targets.
While most of the students completing their courses passed, there are substantial numbers who drop out. The FEFC's performance indicators, published earlier this year, reveal a drop-out rate of around 15 per cent for students on courses lasting at least a year.