A recent inspection report on courses for 16 to 19-year-olds shows the size of the task facing Sean Farren, the new minister for Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment. He must not only push colleges to raise standards but must also find millions of pounds to improve buildings and facilities.
The report, covering a sample eight colleges, said most have not given sufficient attention to methods of broadening the curriculum. "The narrowness of the programmes of most post-16 students is a major concern."
But the reports adds that all the colleges provide good-quality personal support to students and have introduced Individualised Student Learner Agreements on a trial basis.
Almost all offer the vast majority of students effective guidance on managing their own learning, for example through the use of flexible learning materials.
"There is, however, an unacceptably high drop-out rate on many courses, particularly in the first term of the academic year," the report says.
One weakness the inspectorate has been highlighting for many years is the poor performance of students on repeat GCSEs. It recommends that colleges stop doing these courses.
Another is the acceptance of students for advanced GNVQs without the minimum of four or five GCSE grade Cs. "The standards achieved by these students at the end of their courses are generally poor," says the report.
There are major accommodation deficiencies in half the colleges and many students are taught in rooms that are bleak and not fit for the purpose. Too many students and staff do not have access to appropriate facilities to consolidate and extend their skills in information and communication technology.
Less than 2 per cent of total enrolments are in ICT courses "in spite of their importance to business and commerce in Northern Ireland" and the vocational areas of engineering and manufacturing account for only 6 per cent of enrolments.