Ministers and the Scottish Further Education Funding Council do have the power to stop or cut funds to an errant college. Eddie Frizzell, head of the Scottish Executive's lifelong learning department, on Wednesday reminded MSPs on the Scottish Parliament's audit committee that the muscle is there.
A running spat between MSPs, the Executive and the funding council over colleges' public accountability resurfaced after Mr Frizzell replied to an earlier letter from Brian Monteith, Tory chair of the committee.
MSPs have opted for the meantime to drop their concerns but maintain their criticism of the Executive and the funding council, contained in an audit committee report published in March. They contend that colleges have been left without sufficient scrutiny and that the financial woes and industrial relations problems of some might have been avoided with more intervention.
In a further slight to Mr Frizzell, MSPs have dismissed his suggestion for a further informal meeting to talk through issues.
The departmental head, in his letter to Mr Monteith, takes the committee firmly to task for misreading the powers available to the funding council and ministers.
"The funding council has a range of levers over college performance and its chief executive has considerable ability to act and intervene when there are problems with an institution," Mr Frizzell states.
"It is also the case that a college principal may appear before the audit committee, alongside the chief executive of the funding council, when a particular college-related issue arises, and this has happened since 1999."
He adds: "Should the council identify an area of concern in a college's performance, such as in relation to its financial health, the standard procedure is for there to be considerable interaction between council officials and the senior management of the board of the college concerned, resulting in an agreed and monitored action plan.
"In extremis, of course, the council also has the power to cease or reduce the funding for a college or to request ministerial intervention at board level."
But Mr Monteith hit back. "The impression is that we do not understand matters but we understand them all too well. We are agreeing to disagree."
He told The TES Scotland: "The issues we were asking about are being tackled and you cannot keep going on about them. You have to give people time to address them. Our concern was about the lack of pace."
Two audit committee reports and two Audit Scotland reports were "making the same point" about lack of action from the department and funding council.
Since the higher and further education funding councils were due to merge, there was little point in pursuing the matter at this time, Mr Monteith said.
In his explanation of available powers, Mr Frizzell insists that ministers have recently reviewed governance and accountability and that improvements are being put in place. Further legislation will ensure that the funding council can attend meetings of college boards "when there are very serious concerns that cannot be dealt with through other channels".
Mr Frizzell told MSPs that the council already monitored college performance to ensure delivery of target student numbers, high quality provision, opportunities for access, financial security and other priorities set by ministers.
"Levers include attaching conditions to funding; the funding methodology itself; monitoring and evaluation on the basis of information which colleges are required to provide; and the HMIE review process," he says.