Efforts to boost engineering course recruitment have not stopped increasing numbers of students dropping out, inspectors at the Further Education Funding Council say.
The FEFC says that engineering must cast off its grimy industrial image and gear up to recruit students of all abilities.
Total enrolments on engineering courses have been falling for six years but colleges' strategic plans forecast a 20 per cent increase before the millennium, the FEFC says in a new report.
The survey of standards of engineering courses in 157 colleges reveals a chequered picture.
Full-time student numbers have increased and now stand at 67,000. However, this rise is more than offset by a decline in part-time day-release students to 222,000.
Colleges which have strong links with schools and businesses, and a flexible and wide-ranging curriculum, are expanding and offer the best blueprint for success. In one college, thanks to a teacher's contacts, a group of national vocational qualification level 2 students worked as rally car team mechanics.
But this picture contrasts with the image which has dogged engineering for decades as a monotonous job for men in grey overalls. Many colleges report persistent problems in attracting bright school-leavers.
General national vocational qualification pilot schemes have had mixed success. While pass rates for externally-assessed work were low, coursework standards were often good, the report says.
Job losses have made engineering an unappealing career option and lack of demand has caused several courses to close, particularly in specialist disciplines. Three out of four colleges offering qualifications in foundry engineering may close due to low recruitment and courses in mining are now mainly confined to a single institution, Doncaster College.
Facilities in many colleges are outdated and in some places students complained about the quality of equipment. "Engineering is an expensive subject," the report concedes, and colleges need to look for imaginative sources of finance. One department successfully applied to the European Union for Pounds 100,000 to set up a computer-based flexible electronics laboratory.
Colleges intend to encourage more school-leavers into engineering by lowering entry requirements, a trend which is already under way. A large proportion of candidates are weak in maths, the most commonly failed component of the course.
"Engineering departments are coping well with changes in the qualifications framework and engineering is generally taught to a good standard," said the FEFC's chief inspector Terry Melia. "But recruitment remains a problem. Where colleges are responding to recruitment difficulties by lowering entry qualifications, this is leading to poor completion and pass rates.
"Colleges owe it to students with low entry qualifications to place them on courses where they have a reasonable chance of success. They should also be altering their teaching methods and increasing their level of learner support for these students. Many departments have not yet addressed these issues. "
Engineering remains a male-dominated subject. In 1993-94 only 8 per cent of students and no more than 6 per cent of staff on FEFC-funded courses were female. "There are too few female teachers of engineering to provide the role models and support which would both help female students and demonstrate that engineering is relevant to both males and females," the report concludes.
The report's findings echo a recent industry-wide study by its main awarding body, the Engineering Training Authority (EnTra).
The failure of engineering courses to attract young people was reflected in the workplace where 80 per cent of companies had no technicians under 19. EnTra believes that the subject's future success depends on opening the minds of children at primary school.
EnTra's Elaine Essery said: "So much goes back to people's conceptions which are formed at an early age which tell them that engineering is a grubby business."