College registrations for the past two years show there should be 15 students to the average class. But the Further Education Funding Council inspectors found that the number in lessons was only 11.
Principals admit privately that this is one of their deepest concerns since it will affect funding in future FEFC efficiency drives. College managers at the annual meeting of the Association of Principals of Colleges this week admitted that their average attendance was around 70 per cent.
Sir William Stubbs, FEFC chief executive, warned the conference that there was "room for improvement" on several counts.
With more than half the colleges now having had complete inspections, weaknesses outweighed strengths in six out of 10 lessons. And when it came to the colleges' efforts to ensure the quality needed to improve standards, strengths outweighed weaknesses in fewer than four out of 10 classes.
There was also much room for improvement in standards of college governance, Sir William said. Pressures on colleges to improve efficiency are increasing. Demand for extra cash to allow colleges to expand further has outstripped the cash available.
Colleges are becoming increasingly confident not just with the way they are working but with the extent to which they feel they can satisfy public demand. Bids for extra cash for growth reached Pounds 466 million this year, exceeding the Pounds 376 million available by almost 24 per cent - a threefold increase on last year. Many colleges were angry that their bids had been rejected (TES, May 5).
However, there was optimistic news on the cash for part-time students. Funding switches from the FEFC to the training and enterprise councils under the new scheme of training credits, or vouchers, this year.
An estimated Pounds 47 million was lost in the switch, jeopardising college places for 70,000 students not on courses covered by TEC credits this autumn.
But ministers are expected next week to bail them out by making the cash available through the FEFC.
Sir William said: "For those students who have not got a training credit through a TEC place and wish to attend part-time, it is likely that the department (DFE) will be able to go forward and fund it."
College principals were pleased with the news although some were far from happy with the overall funding arrangements. Joanna Tait, principal of Bishop Auckland College, Co Durham, said: "The funding methodology which the TECs are planning is one we find very difficult."
Many principals insisted that the TECs were going to private providers, being the cheapest in the market, in an effort to drive down their costs, rather than putting the quality of service first. It was a concern that Sir William said he shared.