New guidelines have been drawn up to prevent colleges massaging statistics in the hope of obtaining extra funding.
Weeks after the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) vowed to get tough on FE institutions which submit inaccurate data on learner numbers and grades "through ignorance or design", a series of data management principles have been created.
They offer guidance to colleges on what information should be included in individualised learner records (ILRs) and how it should be presented, but there are no new sanctions for colleges which flout them.
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive at the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: "Of course there will be those who ask what good the principles are without penalties to back them up, but it's more about the sector responding to a challenge to get its house in order regarding data management and recognising formally what is good practice."
The guidance was drawn up by a management group, headed by Information Authority chairman Graham Jones and including representatives of college groups, individual colleges, funding bodies, the AoC and Ofsted.
In November, the SFA said it was targeting a "small number of providers" who had "tarnished" its relationship with the sector and "achieved financial gain at the expense of both learners and the public purse, whether through ignorance or design".
One of the practices prohibited in the new data management principles is "double counting", where students who take two qualifications in the same classes, such as functional skills alongside their main study programme, are listed twice.
The guidelines also discourage "nested qualifications", in which students taking longer courses drop down to a shorter one, such as switching from a two-year BTEC National to a one-year certificate.
Joy Mercer, the AoC's director of education policy, said: "We don't want to have groups of students starting a two-year qualification but then only completing one year because they are not doing very well or because their teacher has been absent."
She called on the SFA to update its list of qualifications to help colleges record their data accurately, and said deterrents were already in place, as colleges which submit inaccurate ILRs could miss out on funding and receive a poor Ofsted report.
Mr Jones said: "The chief executive of the (then) Learning and Skills Council wrote to providers at the end of last year drawing their attention to these findings and asking for co-operation in developing more consistent data management practices.
"That is what the FE data management group has been working towards, but it is important to note that the delivery of the principles is only the first step.
"They are now `sector owned' and need to be adopted by the sector in order to re-establish confidence in FE data."
The group developed general principles after agreeing that complex, detailed guidance would be "counterproductive" and create too much extra paperwork for principals to read.
North East Worcestershire College's principal John Callaghan, who sat on the group, said: "These principles should ensure that providers understand what is expected of them in terms of data management and can be applied across a range of provision and where conflicts of requirements exist."