Researchers at Greenwich University have revealed the extent of the likely disruption. It shows that 90 per cent of courses designed
for 16 to 19-year-olds in general FE colleges also have students over 19.
Judith Watson, senior research fellow at the university's learning policy unit, said: "There are many reasons why courses may be organised in this way. You cannot assume that there is a sudden change in student needs and levels of maturity at 19."
The findings reinforce the overwhelming views of college and industry leaders at a national consultation conference organised by the Association of Colleges last week.
Delegates regretted the Government's decision not to have a single dedicated post-16 inspection. They warned that there would be major "operational problems".
They called for a range of measures, with legislation if necessary to protect what they saw as the best of the college and workplace inspection regimes under the
Further Education Funding Council and the Training Standards Council.
Proposals in the post-16 white paper, Learning to Succeed, give OFSTED, under the schools chief inspector Chris Woodhead, control of all 16 to 19 inspections, whether in school or college. A new quango takes over inspection of adults.
Mr Woodhead favours the short, sharp inspection where contracted teams go in and issue a pass or fail. College leaders fear that their preferred methods of inspection, with a large element of self-assessment and a lighter touch inspection for those with the highest standards, will be lost.
A 14-point quality assurance strategy was proposed, based on the Association of Colleges conference conclusions, to guarantee "a single, transparent model of inspection" for all learners.
This would ensure consistency at all ages and academic or vocational levels, regardless of which Government agency went in to inspect. It would also allow for more sensitive inspections to be carried out without the need for costly, sweeping reorganisation at the post-19 divide.
Many college principals insist a campaign to protect the best of the current FEFC inspection regime will be more productive than confrontation.
John Guy, principal of The Sixth Form College, Farnborough, warned that there was a danger of colleges expending too much energy resisting OFSTED.
"The real question that needs to be answered is not who will do it? but how will it be done?" If it was led by Chris Woodhead "so be it," he added. "But we have the right to expect procedures which reflect the mature approach of both the FEFC and TSC, if necessary by statutory imposition."