Posts are being phased out as deputies retire or move to other jobs. Many principals are appointing teams of directors or managers with management responsibilities.
Ben Bennett, president of the Association of Principals of Colleges and principal of Aylesbury College, said the system in which a nominated person deputised for the principal but had a limited management role, was slowly disappearing. "It's too much of a luxury to have a #163;40,000-per-year deputy waiting on the touchline," he said.
Northbrook College in Worthing is one of the first to completely scrap the post of vice-principal. Two years ago the West Sussex college had one vice-principal, four directors and 13 heads of department. Today, the streamlined management team consists of the principal Mike Thrower and nine managers, most of whom were already at the college in other posts.
"Many of my board of governors are leading managers in their own fields and had gone through the flattening process themselves," said Mr Thrower. "They thought it would work effectively in the college."
Most of Northbrook's senior managers, including its vice-principal, took early retirement. One director was made redundant.
"It was quite a traumatic experience," Mr Thrower said. "But it was a necessary restructuring which has given me more of a hands-on role."
Amersham and Wycombe College, which used to have one vice-principal and five assistant principals, now has four directors beneath its principal, David Mason.
"The concept of a vice-principa l was a bit of an anachronism," said Mr Mason, a former director of recruitment of training at the Civil Aviation Authority. "This is far more of a commercial model."
The directors are allocated areas of responsibility, including customer services, quality assurance and campus services. They cover for Mr Mason on a four-monthly rotating basis when he is away from college. "They don't necessarily earn the same salary but they're of equal status, " said Mr Mason.
Most colleges had similar management structures while they were under local authority control. Since incorporation in 1993, there has been no single model. "Colleges have had to review how they discharge management functions," said Mr Bennett.
Vardean College in Brighton reduced its number of vice-principals from three to one over two years while four staff who were already working at the sixth-form college were promoted to directors.
The college is saving more than #163;10,000 per year on senior managers' salaries, says Alan Jenkins, the principal, while his management team now covers a wider range of interests and responsibilities.
The shortage of openings for staff seeking promotion to vice-principal was demonstrated earlier this term when Hereford College received more than 300 enquiries and 110 applications after it advertised in The TES for a vice-principal.
The APC recognises that colleges are reflecting the industrial process of "delayering" or flattening management structures, but has yet to carry out a nationwide survey.
Mr Bennett warns that the management changes in colleges will affect the quality of candidates available to governors when they appoint principals.