Although most colleges are finally getting to grips with the Further Education Funding Council's requirements for data, some say teaching has had to take second place to management information needs.
When colleges were granted independence in 1993, most were only used to compiling aggregated lists of students' ages and the courses they were taking. Now the FEFC wants to know a student's previous qualifications, the outcome of all courses, sources of funding and, most controversially, the destinations of students once they complete a programme.
The Department for Education and Employment also wants data on student destinations, which is seen as a means of monitoring the effectiveness of the FE sector. But a study published by FEFC inspectors in February found just a minority of institutions have systematic, college-wide methods of recording student destinations and non-completions.
Paul Ricketts, a college representative on the FEFC's information systems subcommittee, said few colleges were prepared for the new set of requirements. "It's taken everybody by surprise, even the FEFC," he said. "Nobody expected it was going to be such a significant challenge."
The scale of this challenge, he said, was shown by the problems with the Individualised Student Record (ISR) which requires colleges to record about 60 different facts on each student. Mr Ricketts, management information systems director at City College, Manchester, said this had caused staff great stress, especially in large colleges.
Colleges must make ISR returns three times per year. These then lead to them submitting demand-led returns which help the FEFC calculate a college's budget. Although 99 per cent of colleges have now completed ISR returns for 199495, just one in nine met the original deadline.
An FEFC spokeswoman said the "teething problems" were partly caused by colleges not being used to collecting such a wide range of data. The FEFC has also admitted that the software it commissioned to help colleges process data had initially miscalculated the money they could claim from the council. Large colleges found themselves more than Pounds 1 million adrift on budget plans.
Principals accept colleges will ultimately benefit from providing more information. Tony Colton, president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, said effective monitoring of a student ought to help them once they complete a learning programme.
Colleges, however, had undergone a dramatic cultural change and incurred significant costs. "Those that have survived have done brilliantly," he said. "There has been an awful lot of pain and perspiration."
Ken Spours, a policy officer at London University's Institute of Education's post-16 education centre, described the ISR as a "complete nightmare" and said FEFC demands were distracting from student attainment.
"There is enormous suspicion about information flow," said Mr Spours, whose study of management information systems at five colleges will be published in the autumn. "People think they are being asked to provide it only for accountability purposes."
Sue Ransom, president of the Association for College Managers, said colleges were at last starting to receive information from the FEFC which showed the council was making use of the data.
"We understand that you must have good systems in place to track a student's pathway through college, but it should not become so onerous that middle managers spend all their time satisfying demands for information."