The rise in turnover of top managers since incorporation may be the tip of the iceberg.
More than one in three colleges has appointed a new principal since the FE sector left local authority control in 1993, a TES survey reveals.
The rapid turnover reflects dramatic changes since incorporation with some principals opting for retirement as the sector encounters acute financial problems.
A TES telephone poll of 86 colleges - nearly one-fifth of the FE sector - found 30 (35 per cent) no longer have the same principal as in April 1993. A further three principals were due to retire or leave for another post before the start of next term - taking the proportion of colleges with new principals to almost two out of every five.
The TES survey suggests that college principals are changing jobs faster than their counterparts in industry. A recent survey for the Institute of Management showed that 4.5 per cent of company chief executives resigned or left their post for other reasons during 1995.
Meanwhile, a breakdown of principals' ages produced by the Colleges' Employers' Forum shows that many are approaching retirement age .
Ben Bennett, president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, said the turnover of principals had speeded up since incorporation because many saw themselves as academic heads rather than business leaders.
"They were probably unhappy with local management of colleges in local authority days and incorporation put the cap on it," said Mr Bennett, who has been principal of Aylesbury College for six years. "Finances have tightened and they probably felt they'd had enough."
Tony Colton, principal of Matthew Boulton College in Birmingham since 1987, said some principals were leaving the profession in their early 50s. "There are an increasing number who are taking an early bath having been pushed."
Richard Gorringe, chief executive of Bedford College, has held two principal's posts since incorporation. Mr Gorringe, who became principal of Norton Radstock College, Bath, just before April 1993, agreed that the job is far more volatile than in the past. "It's more difficult being a principal than managing other sectors of industry because of the complexity," he said. "In many businesses there is a fairly understandable product range but FE is mixed up with things such as government legislation."
"If people leave because they are depressed and defeated then that's another thing, but it can be a new challenge to move on to another position."
Five of the 21 sixth-form colleges surveyed had appointed a new principal since 1993. Margaret Hobrough, principal of Godalming College in Surrey, said principals of smaller sixth-form colleges were under some of the greatest pressure as they struggled to cope with personnel, site management and auditing without the money to appoint specialist staff. It was not unusual for principals to work 12 hours on each weekday as well as part of the weekend. "We have to rethink the way we manage and survive," she said.
The Further Education Funding Council is due to publish in September a full analysis of movements among principals since incorporation. A council spokeswoman doubted that as many as one-third of colleges had changed principal but admitted current FEFC figures do not include changes since April 1996. "It is turning over a few percentage points each year. It's more or less what we expected," she said.
Other principals denied the job is too stressful. David Hopt, who took over as principal of Derwentside College in Durham 18 months ago, said: "It's great fun. We are achieving our financial objectives and things are fine."
Martin Jenkins, principal of Halton College in Cheshire since 1992, had no desire to return to pre-incorporation days. "It's understandable some people would find it more difficult with the change in culture, but there is more autonomy and we are allowed to create our own future."
After 10 years or more under the same principal, it can often benefit a college to appoint a new figurehead. John Haydon, principal of Stafford College since 1986, is due to retire next Easter by which time he will be nearly 60.
Although the curriculum has changed dramatically, Mr Haydon thought the greatest difference since 1986 is in the calibre of governing bodies. "The responsibilities lying with the college executive are considerably different, " he said. "Having got through incorporation and the first round of FEFC inspections, now is quite a good time for a change."
The survey revealed considerable variations in the time which principals had spent in post - 24 had taken up their jobs before 1990, 11 had held their post for more than 10 years. A total of 16 had been in post for under two years.