An overhaul of the outdated exam registration system could help to reduce the pound;20 million-plus annual bill faced by colleges for late entry fees and exams that students do not end up sitting.
The computer systems used for registration date back to the late 1980s and were designed for GCSEs and A levels. They have been patched over the years to incorporate a wider range of vocational qualifications, but the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ), which represents the largest exam boards, acknowledges that the system's complexity means colleges may incur unnecessary charges because exam centres are more likely to make errors.
The Association of Colleges (AoC) calculates that late registration fees cost its members pound;20 million a year, almost the entire income of an average-sized college. It is not known how many unnecessary registrations are incurred by colleges failing to withdraw candidates who have switched courses or dropped out, so the full extent of potential savings is likely to be higher.
Rising exam fees have become an increasing concern for colleges. They totalled pound;196 million in 2009-10, or 4 per cent of the entire college budget, nearly doubling in size over 10 years.
Problems with late fees or charges for exams that students no longer intend to sit are a particular concern for FE colleges, which are more likely to deal with a wide range of qualifications at different exam boards and where students are more likely to change course.
The JCQ is entering the final stages of developing a single system for all of its exam boards, which should ease the burden on college finances. Called A2C, the project is intended to begin operation in September 2014, with all centres moving to the system over the following year.
"The project will reduce bureaucracy for schools and colleges by modernising the way in which data is exchanged with awarding organisations," said Michael Turner, director of JCQ. "It will harmonise the way in which general and vocational qualifications are processed and deliver improvements in how data is managed."
Colleges usually enrol students in September and have to quickly assess their abilities in order to enter them for exams by a deadline of 21 October. They then have a month to notify the exam boards if students withdraw - many students in urban areas enrol in several colleges in order to try them out before they commit, for instance.
The most common reason for incurring penalties is late submission by the lecturer, according to research by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but in more than a quarter of cases it is because the student transfers, has made a mistake or changes their mind. Administration problems are the other common cause.
Late entries are charged at up to double the rate, as exam boards seek to penalise behaviour that causes them additional costs in planning invigilation. In some cases, students may even turn up on the day of the exam; they can still be entered, but fees can be tripled.
Some colleges avoid the risk of incurring late fees by automatically entering all their enrolled students, but they risk paying for students who do not intend to sit exams if they are not able to withdraw them by the November deadline.
The AoC said that the difficulties were exacerbated by government demands for early registration and data from awarding organisations. Colleges' unhappiness with the charges reflected the very limited competition between awarding bodies, it added.
In the past five years, 63 per cent of colleges have not changed provider and only 20 per cent felt they could easily change, according to research by the AoC.
Matthew Dean, AoC's technology manager, said that improvements to the exam registration system could reduce costs if they were implemented successfully. A similar programme had made savings for colleges in Scotland, helping to keep exam fee costs below 3 per cent of the college budget.
But Mr Dean added that Scotland was also supported by government intervention to reduce costs, and that England had a larger and more complex system.
"Any costs that come out of colleges' budgets and aren't put towards learning and teaching are costs that we would like to see reduced," he concluded. "We support effective data sharing, but we would need to see this in practice. And we would not want to see the costs of the project passed on to colleges."
PAYING THE BILL
On exam fees colleges spent:
2000-01 - pound;100m
2009-10 - pound;196m
Late fees cost colleges about pound;20m - a year
About one in four bills for late fees are caused by student decisions.
Original headline: Streamlined exam entry system to slim colleges' bloated bills