Also, only 56 colleges out of 454 in England and Wales offer the range of studies needed to qualify as a centre. And only 17 of these have above-average student retention and achievement rates, government-commissioned research shows.
The study by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, identifies ingredients needed for the initiative to succeed. But, the authors warn:
"The proportion of colleges that continue to achieve high levels of recruitment to specialist vocational education and training at level 3 (A-level) and above is worryingly low."
David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, called for the research last July, four months before he announced plans for a network of specialist vocational centres.
The results show that the decline in vocational students between 1996 and 1999 was worse than feared. The proportion of students signing up fell from 15 to 12.7 per cent of all enrolments. Vocational courses ovrall fell by 12.6 per cent. But recruitment to all level 3 vocational and academic courses rose by 31 per cent in the same period.
Last month, Mr Blunkett an-nounced pound;25million pump-priming money and 10,000 places for students. But the research suggests colleges would struggle to reach the target.
Increased specialisation, with a curriculum that supports the economy, may redress the balance, says the report "Searching for excellence in FE". "However, the scale of investment needed to secure a robust and sufficient set of specialist colleges should not be under-estimated," it said.
The report, based on research and visits to specialist colleges, gives 10 criteria for success including a clear strategy for action and top-class staff kept up-to-date with industry. Networks should be linked to universities and commercial research centres and there should be close liaison with industry, including national training organisations.
Chris Hughes, chief executive of the LSDA, said: "It is a long-term strategy but these centres can succeed in reversing the decline."
Engineering recruitment crisis, www.tesfefocus.co.uk