THE NUMBER of hours students are taught in colleges is falling - and much of the teaching that remains relies on staff goodwill, writes Ngaio Crequer.
Research by NATFHE, the lecturers' union, and London's Institute of Education has examined how funding pressures have changed the way colleges operate.
Colleges on average now offer between 15 and 18 hours per week for a full-time course, although some offer between 12.5 and 15 hours, with the lowest figure quoted of only 12. Students have traditionally signed up for 21 hours.
The research covered 14 colleges across the country.
One head of school interviewed said: "Fifteen hours is... absolutely dreadful. A lot of students... need more than 15 hours a week, especially 16- and 17-year-olds, who experience difficulties with timetables for two-and-a-half days a week instead of five."
Another said: "If a student goes to college and goes from having 25 structured hours a week to 16, they can't deal with the time."
The report adds "managers accepted that the quality and quantity of teaching hours was being partly maintained bythe goodwill of staff which was seen as a key element of professionalism."
Taught hours were increasingly being replaced by resource-based and other forms of independent learning. But, says the research, some students and parents thought this was a "cheap option" and unacceptable.
Almost everyone interviewed was concerned about the growing use of part-time staff. About half of the sample used agency staff. Those who did not said it sent the wrong message to other staff, and that they could not find agency staff of the right quality.
One manager said that, in the past five years, only two agency staff had fulfilled the required job specification. Two colleges regularly employed through an agency former staff who had been made redundant. At one, this was mutually convenient, but at the others staff felt they had been "doubly duped".
"The limbo existence of part-time agency staff is simply deplorable, " said a manager.
* "Learning to Live with It: The Impact of FEFC Funding, Further Evidence from 14 Colleges." Published by NATFHE. For more details ring 0171 837 3636