Colleges are offering a wide range of "inducements" ranging from free cinema tickets and cash for books to trips abroad and university-style scholarships in the race to attract a diminishing number of 16-year-old school-leavers.
Ruth Gee, chief executive of the AFC, said the use of such inducements reflected the breakdown in the funding system. "All colleges are coming under increasing pressure to become entrepreneurial in the marketing of their courses and the AFC expects to see more enticements of this kind," she said.
But the entrepreneurial-minded Roger Ward, chief executive of the Colleges' Employers' Forum, described the initiative as a "refreshing development". He said: "I wish we could see more of it and hope we do as time goes by. It is no more than the scholarship schemes being offered by universities and most independent schools, and does not deserve criticism."
Accusations of bribery were cast when pupils with top GCSE grades were offered Pounds 1,200 to take a place last week at Teesside Tertiary College. The college was condemned for sending letters to high-scoring exam students inviting them to complete their A-levels at the college, in exchange for the money.
Many were angry and saddened by the college's actions, but few in education were surprised. They said that while there was a long tradition of assisting new students with buying equipment and books, as grants diminished colleges were going to greater lengths to attract school-leavers.
The critical AFC view was shared by the lecturers' union NATFHE. General secretary John Akker said: "The college cannot be blamed. It is a response to the mentality of the market in which it is now operating." Mr Akker said the Government should step in to end the practice. "It diminishes the reputation of the college, is bewildering to parents and resented by students."
Following the revelations about Teesside, other colleges were accused of running similar inducement schemes. Kendal College in Cumbria was revealed to be offering prospective students driving lessons. Cinema and restaurant vouchers were being offered by Sandwell College in the West Midlands. The nearby Walsall College of Arts and Technology was accused of bribing students with free trips to EuroDisney in Paris.
Schools and colleges in some areas are already at loggerheads over recruitment tactics, with college managers accusing headteachers of failing to pass on information about FE options to their pupils. John Sutton, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, says the new inducement tactics will make things worse.
"The best inducement is good teaching and better results. Colleges should be doing all they can to raise standards instead of trying these bright ideas to see if they will work just as well."
Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College and chairman of the AFC, said that left without regulation colleges will find more ways of attracting students.
All colleges are trying to increase student numbers in line with targets set out in 1992, said Patricia Stubbs, of the Further Education Funding Council. Ms Stubbs was impressed to see some doing so in such ingenious ways, and of Walsall College's EuroDisney trip, she said: "Colleges everywhere are trying to improve themselves, it is the world they live in. I am delighted to see Walsall doing so."
Students are becoming far more discerning, according to Robert Emery, deputy chief executive of Walsall College, and institutions must provide them with a course which meets their career demands. The EuroDisney trip was no bribe but part of a hotel, catering and hospitality course.