Monitoring students' progress is a `complete nightmare' and, in some cases, nearly impossible. Senior managers at Hackney College expected strong criticism of their methods of monitoring student enrolments and withdrawals when inspectors descended on the place - and they got it.
But by the time inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council visited the east London college last autumn, it was already well on the way towards improving its management information system (MIS) - a fact acknowledged in their report.
John Crisp, Hackney's director of finance and resources, admitted the college had, like many others, been caught out by the need to provide so much information to the council. "The sector has struggled as colleges suddenly had to grapple with the increased accountability."
Six months before the inspection, an independent consultant called in by Hackney found that, while the college had a number of ways of recording information about courses and its 15,000 students, there was no cohesive policy.
A steering group of governors and senior staff later concluded lecturers should take more responsibility for the information they passed on to managers. "There is no magic box which churns out these figures," said Mr Crisp. "We have to be clear where ownership lies."
Staff are not necessarily required to collect any more information than before. The difference is data is passed on to the registrar in time for it be put on to the computerised MIS which can be regularly updated.
Although lecturers are expected to follow-up withdrawals, the system will automatically spot if a student does not attend a lecture for four weeks. But senior vice-principal Ian Ashman doubts the ability of an inner-city college to monitor the reasons for a withdrawal or the destination of students who leave with a qualification.
"Hackney has a very transient population," he said.
Each autumn, the college's central admissions unit is given the names, addresses and telephone numbers of students who left the previous summer. Forms are sent out to ex-students with the incentive of a Pounds 250 raffle prize for one lucky person who reveals their whereabouts.
But the combined telephone and postal survey normally only leads to a 30 per cent response rate. In comparison, the college is able to monitor the progress of all 400 students in its sixth-form centre.
"It depends upon the nature of the client group," said Mr Ashman. "The sixth formers are much more settled and have a clear relationship with members of staff. It's totally unrealistic to follow up every part-time student in an inner-city area."