The Education Minister's call for further education colleges to make higher standards an "unambiguous priority" brought a swift retort from the Association of Scottish Colleges that it could not be done on existing resources.
Brian Wilson was commenting on the first HMI report on Standards and Quality in FE, which found considerable variation in provision and performance.
Tom Kelly, the association's chief officer, said: "If there has been any ambiguity about commitment to quality, it lies in Government funding which has emphasised efficiency and growth, not quality. Only if the 13 per cent funding cuts between now and the turn of the century were reversed could colleges make quality their 'unambiguous priority'."
Both Mr Wilson and Douglas Osler, the senior chief inspector, emphasised that the era of competitive colleges was over. Mr Osler declared: "In the concern for market share and efficiency, we must not forget that the key purpose of colleges is to provide high-quality opportunities and a high quality of learning experience for students."
Colleges are to have five-yearly inspections which will follow the format for schools in being "more sharply focused, with clearer indications of points for action".
The report, based on full inspections of 16 colleges and aspects of work in all 45 colleges during 1995-96, also heralds the introduction of a new "quality mark" for exceptional performance.
David Kelso, chief inspector for post-school, said: "This is a response to colleges complaints about audit overload. Those institutions which have established quality standards and have quality assurance systems that are sufficiently robust to ensure the maintenance of these standards, which is not necessarily the same thing, will be given recognition and have a lighter touch from external inspections."
The Scottish Office says it is now time for colleges to "shift the emphasis in management from measuring quality to actually improving it". Mr Kelly said, however: "The proliferation of quality systems is not the colleges' fault and most of the demands to demonstrate quality are externally generated." Management time was frequently diverted by having to wrestle with cuts when it could be devoted to quality issues.
A Standards and Quality report for FE will be issued every three years. The series already includes schools and will be extended to pre-school and community education.
Comment, page 21, Details, FE Focus, page 30