STUDENTS following distance-learning courses receive little support, are poor achievers, and are often enrolled on programmes which are not suited to their needs.
These are the findings of the Further Education Funding Council inspectorate, based on visits to 50 colleges, and a response to a questionnaire from more than 800 students.
Many students undertake distance learning - where they rarely, if ever, actually visit their college - because they can choose their own time to study, and fit it in with work and family commitments. In rural areas, where there is little public transport, distance learning can be a boon, and employers can use the courses to update their workers' skills.
But some colleges have given little thought to the different kinds of needs these students have. They have seen the development of distance learning as an important means of widening participation, "however, the focus has been on access to study not on how to ensure that students succeed in their studies and progress", says the council's report.
And sometimes the initial impetus has come simply from the need to secure more funding rather than providing what students want, according to the inspectors.
In 1998-99 there were just under 300,000 students on distance-learning courses, across 324 colleges. The most popular subjects were book-keeping, security guarding and information technology.
Students with few or no qualifications, or who have not studied for a long time, are not successful on distance-learning courses, and new methods must be found for such people, say the inspectors.
Tutor support is variable. At one college, tutors have only one hour a week for every 10 students to discuss their work on the phone. On a GCSE course students were entitled to only six 30-minute tutorials a year.Yet one large college provided "as much support as students require".
Many colleges left it up to students to contact them when they felt the need.
"Thus, students tend to see a tutorial as something which happens when they are having difficulty with their work rather than as part of a continuing dialogue which enables them to reach their full potential."
Even when there was contact "some tutors try to teach over the telephone as if they were teaching a class rather than concentrating on the materials with which the students are familiar."
It was usually students who failed to make contact with the college who needed the most help. Retention and achievement rates are "unacceptably low", according to the inspectors.
Only a fifth of colleges saw more than 80 per cent of students pass their courses. At 5 per cent of institutions student passes were below 20 per cent. One college failed to get 10 per cent of students through its book-keeping course in two years.
The achievement rate for A-level by distance learning is less than half that for more traditonal forms of study. And retention rates are misleading. Colleges find it difficult to discover if students on their books are still "active".
Many fail to complete their assignments over a considerable period of time yet colleges often make little effort to find out why. There were staying-on rates of 70 per cent or above on courses leading to only 143 of the 2,742 qualifications available through distance learning, according to the latest data.
Even when students' learning support needs are identified, they are not always met, the inspectors say.
"To study by distance learning can be difficult enough. Significant weaknesses in literacy and numeracy create an additional and daunting hurdle.
"Only one student, out of the 826 who responded to the survey, was receiving individual learning support on a regular basis."