Colleges have been accused of falsely boosting success rates in some courses by as much as 40 per cent, according to an official report.
The Learning and Skills Council (LSC) examined data at colleges it suspected to be the worst offenders and found claimed success rates rose at some by more than 40 per cent in their final returns to the funding body, compared with figures including all starts.
A "control" college, which was not suspected of manipulating its results by removing failing students from the official record, showed no change at all before its final return.
The colleges were found to be using a wide range of techniques that would cause students who had dropped out or looked likely to fail to disappear from the final returns to the LSC, increasing the college's overall success rates.
The report did not try to find out how prevalent manipulating data to improve success rates was, but said 42 colleges changed their claimed number of places by more than 10 per cent in their final returns.
Overall in FE, there was a 6 per cent fall in the number of students who started courses and the number recorded in the final returns.
David Willetts, shadow innovation, universities and skills secretary, uncovered the report through a parliamentary question after receiving a letter from a whistleblower claiming the practices were "endemic" in FE.
Mr Willetts said: "It does cast doubt over the dramatic improvement in college success rates. I hope something in the real world has been getting better. But it looks like, in at least some cases, data has been manipulated to increase the apparent success rate."
He said the link between success rates and funding should be weakened to avoid giving colleges "perverse incentives" to exaggerate them. Instead, they should be rewarded for getting hard-to-reach students through the gates, even if a qualification was not immediately possible, he said, and the audit regime should be toughened, but administered by a single body like the former Further Education Funding Council.
Nick Linford, a funding and performance consultant who said he alerted the LSC to the potential for this kind of abuse four years ago, said there could be innocent reasons for late changes, such as data being entered wrongly from the start in busy enrolment periods and only caught at the end of the year.
"It's a complicated problem that ranges from deliberate manipulation to misunderstanding the data rules, to there being conflicting information - or lack of information - as to how to interpret the rules," he said.
Mr Linford said the issue became prevalent in 200405 when the LSC introduced minimum levels of performance on success rates, while at the same time cutting down its audit regime and saving pound;7 million.
Now Geoff Russell, LSC chief executive, has written to colleges demanding they stop practices considered against the spirit of existing guidelines on success rates, as FE Focus reported last month.
The report also found that information from the colleges examined was generally weak, with only 26 per cent of qualifications able to be fully verified, although some inconsistencies were small and would not have affected success rates.
Fixing the figures
- Recruiting above target and deciding at the end of the year which places are unfunded, so removing them from the Individual Learner Record.
- If a student takes on additional qualifications during the year, deciding at the last minute whether to include them.
- Including students on the records at first, but scrubbing them from the final submission under the guise of data cleansing.
- Manipulating the end dates to turn successful short courses into long courses and unsuccessful long courses into short courses, or extending the end date to remove the course from that year's figures.
- Changing the leaving date to October for students who drop out from November to January so colleges keep the funding but are not included in success rates.
- Leaving out overseas students or those funded by employers, even though they are studying alongside LSC-funded students.
- Transferring students off a course, but not transferring them to another course at the same level, as required.