New figures from the Further Education Funding Council reveal there has been a change of principal at 155 colleges in the past three years, with almost three-quarters of posts falling vacant because of retirement.
In 10 per cent of cases, the chief executive left to move to another college, while a further one in ten departures were resignations. In 11 colleges, 8 per cent of the total, other reasons accounted for the vacancy.
The funding council data, which confirm a survey carried out by The TES in the summer, also shows that more principals left in 1995-6 compared with the previous two years.
However, funding chiefs say they anticipated the increase, putting it down to older principals opting to go once they had seen their colleges through the first years of incorporation.
The number of principals who have retired, 110, reflects the age range in the sector, according to the FEFC.
A study published earlier this year by the Colleges' Employers' Forum revealed the age profile of principals still in post is weighted dramatically towards the older end. In a sample of 317 chief executives, 19 were over 60, while 69 were aged between 55 and 59 and many of those expected to leave before reaching 60.
The then chief executive of the CEF, Roger Ward, now heading the Association of Colleges, predicted a mass exodus of principals this autumn and early next year.
He said stress amid the pressures of cost-cutting and redundancies would encourage many to go earlier than they might have done before incorporation.
The latest FEFC statistics show that most new chief executives, 61 per cent, were vice-principals before taking up their new post.
Another 12 per cent of appointees were principals at another college, while 6 per cent were acting principal and 8 per cent were in another college post. The remaining 13 per cent came from other backgrounds.
The figures also indicate that the top management tier in colleges is still dominated by men.
Women accounted for justone-fifth of new appointments, though that figure means their overall representation in the list of principals is increasing.