Colleges that have concentrated on key skills courses such as information technology and programmes promoting access to higher education are most likely to hit student recruitment targets this year, a survey by The TES shows.
But few are confident they will hit overall targets this year. They don't expect colleges to find the extra 700,000 students the Government wants by 2002. While initial recruitment may remain buoyant, there are fears that retention rates will plummet this year because many colleges are now reaching students they describe as "the hardest to recruit."
Managers said problems associated with recruitment and retention will inevitably grow as, in the words of one manager in the north-east, "we dig deeper into the area of social exclusion".
Full details of the survey will be published later this year. Interim results reported in The TES at the end of September show targets have been reached in areas where there are government campaigns, such as those focusing on the areas f health and social welfare. The Curriculum 2000 initiative, to broaden the range of studies by students, has also helped recruitment.
However, the Further Education Funding Council says there may be undue optimism about retention and achievement rates. General further education and tertiary colleges which recruit a high proportion of students from disadvantaged areas have seen significant improvements over the past three years, the FEFC report on retention and improvement rates shows.
The proportion of 16 to 18-year-olds in England gaining basic qualifications at level 1, equivalent to GCSE grades D-G, increased from 59 per cent to 53 per cent, with the highest increases recorded in urban areas. But retention rates increased only slightly overall from 1997 and now stand at around 80 per cent for most qualifications.
The FEFC report also says that variability in achievement is becoming smaller as colleges with thelowest achievement rates show the highest levels of improvement.