Plans to free colleges from the tight reins of the inspectors and give them greater control over monitoring their own standards and performance are to be postponed for four years.
Hopes of sweeping reforms by 1997, including a dramatic cut in inspection workloads, are unrealistic, chief inspector Terry Melia will say next month in a report on the findings of a Further Education Funding Council working group.
Instead, top-flight colleges will be freed to try a more hands-off inspection regime. They will act as pilots for a national scheme of self-assessment and quality control, unlikely to be in place before 2001.
Dr Melia warned in February that colleges were still far from ready for hands-off inspections. He accused many of being complacent. "They are turning a blind eye to their weaknesses," he said.
However, the problems are not all with the colleges. The five-point grading system average (grade 3) which is supposed to show a balance of weaknesses and strengths has proved difficult to interpret.
Inspectors feel that many colleges which are not doing well in the first four-year inspection cycle need more time to get their act together. But equally, there are criticisms from colleges over the inadequacy of some newer inspectors in meeting the task of reliable quality assessment.
The delays will disappoint many college principals. One said: "The way to become fit for self-assessment is to do it - and the sooner we do, the better."
A measure of urgency is suggested in a paper this week from the Further Education Development Agency, Towards Self-Assessing Colleges, which sets out schemes for colleges to review their quality assurance systems.
"Self-assessing colleges are not only more likely to meet the needs of their customers; they are also more likely to survive, prosper and be seen to deliver quality provision, which will encourage further growth. In short, self-assessing colleges are more likely to be successful improving colleges. "
Stephen Crowne, FEDA chief executive, said: "This is very much in line with the general thrust of Government policy, which is to encourage education and training institutions to take greater responsibility for quality assurance. "
Concern generally among college managers is that Sir William Stubbs, FEFC chief executive, has been slow in giving colleges a lighter touch, not only over inspections but on general funding policy.
These concerns are echoed by Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Association for Colleges. In The TES this week (page 19) she says: "They (colleges) were promised freedom from control and a light touch from the funding bodies. Instead, the colleges have found themselves subject to a regulatory regime which demands detailed returns on individual students. Yes, there is institutional harmony but it functions in what some might call a national straitjacket."