A third of colleges have been excluded from new calculations of student numbers in further education because their figures were either late or unusable.
Colleges ran into such problems meeting all the demands of the controversial new student records that only two-thirds managed to submit all the information needed to the Further Education Funding Council on time at the end of last year.
The FEFC, publishing the snapshot picture this week of the sector in the last academic year, has been forced to estimate returns for 149 out of the total 457 colleges.
Of those whose data are not included, around 100 have sent in their returns, but the information has not yet been validated according to stringent FEFC checks. A further 42 have still to submit their figures.
This is the first time national estimates on student numbers in colleges have been calculated using the individualised student record (ISR) - an 18-month-old system demanding far more detailed information from colleges than before. Many principals complained of difficulties getting the highly complex mechanism running in a short time.
It is also the first year the FEFC has taken over responsibility for collecting statistical data from the Department for Education and Employment.
The FEFC this week robustly defended its calculations, claiming the level of response represented "a significant achievement across the sector as a whole".
"This is a very good result," said a spokeswoman. "From our point of view the ISR was a huge challenge for us and for the colleges and they have done extremely well."
John Brennan, director of policy development at the Association for Colleges, said many colleges had experienced problems with the new system, though they found nothing fundamentally wrong with the concept. Teething problems would be overcome, he predicted.
The figures out this week indicate colleges provided courses for 3.2 million students during 1994-95. Though direct comparison with differently-collected data from previous years is impossible, the FEFC calculates the numbers are 6 per cent up on the 1993-94. "If that continues the sector will comfortably meet the growth targets set by the Secretary of State," said a spokeswoman.
Of the total students in colleges, 2.4 million were on programmes funded by the FEFC, while the rest took courses financed by other bodies, including the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
The figures also show students on FEFC-funded courses were studying for 3.9 million qualifications. Almost three-quarters of those were vocational, but only 4 per cent were general national vocational qualifications and 8 per cent were national vocational qualifications.
Colleges are likely to be criticised in an FEFC report next week for failing to track former students' progress. The document finds the colleges are rich in data, but many do not use this information enough to improve provision.
As the paper is published, a new joint working group involving both HEFCE and FEFC members will meet to "discuss questions of mutual interest". The group will also examine mergers between FE and HE institutions following news of merger talks between Derby University and five neighbouring colleges.