Awarding bodies are coming under renewed pressure over escalating exam fees amid Government moves to regulate the qualifications market.
Colleges' bodies have joined forces with schools associations to call on Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard to sound the alarm over rising fees.
Though they support recommendations from Sir Ron Dearing over 16-19 qualifications, the six organisations - which include the Association for College Management and the Association of Principals of Sixth Form Colleges - fear the cost implications of a significant increase in the number and range of awards.
The FE sector spent Pounds 50 million on qualifications fees in 1995-96, and the figure will rise this year as the awarding bodies push up prices. City Guilds, one of the three largest bodies, imposed rises of between 3.75 and 6 per cent last month, while Business and Technology Education Council fees went up by around 4 per cent. The average increase for Royal Society of Arts awards, announced in June, was 3.5 per cent.
However, proposals in the Government's newly-published education bill would give the new Qualifications and National Curriculum Authority - being formed from the merger of the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority - powers to cap the fees awarding bodies could charge.
The plan, which would also give QNCA the right to impose any other conditions in return for accrediting a qualification, will outrage the awarding bodies, though it may reassure schools and colleges.
A spokesman for City Guilds said: "If this does mean a fees cap, that really would be a significant move and we would want it examined very closely at the bill's committee stage. It would look as though the Government was attempting to regulate the market."
Meanwhile, the Association of Colleges is preparing to consult its members to gauge satisfaction levels over awarding bodies. The AOC is being urged to quiz colleges by the Association of Principals of Colleges, which suggests the sector should form a united front with schools to force a reduction in qualifications costs.
APC general secretary Bernard Smith suggested colleges could increasingly seek accreditation for home-grown qualifications, reducing their dependence on awards offered by major awarding bodies.
Concerns over fees will have been raised further by changes to General National Vocational Qualifications, announced this week. Increased external assessment and marking will mean a new cost burden for awarding bodies - a bill widely expected to be passed on to colleges.
The AOC, which stresses it seeks a considered overview of college relations with exam boards, has already supported Department for Education and Employment proposals to reduce awarding bodies.
In his annual report on the state of the further education sector, FE chief inspector Dr Terry Melia highlighted inspectors' concerns over the quality of external verification provided by awarding bodies.