Hopes of freeing colleges from inspectors' scrutiny and handing them the power to judge their own performances have been dashed in new proposals.
Colleges, which were expecting to start monitoring themselves next year, were told they will not have a free hand until after the millennium in a report by the Further Education Funding Council's inspection working group.
However, the issue has split the group, with some claiming the opportunity for an immediate move to self-evaluation has been lost, while want to see colleges assessing each other first.
Dr Terry Melia, FEFC chief inspector of colleges, feels the institutions are not yet ready for full self-assessment. He believes they must first show their "maturity as self-critical institutions, capable of taking responsibility for their own quality assurance".
Colleges will be called on to do this in a four-year cycle of inspections, starting in 1997. Though external team inspections of colleges will continue, these will draw more extensively than before on the institutions' own self-assessment reports to ensure they have mechanisms to monitor strengths and weaknesses. Then colleges may be allowed to apply for the right to evaluate themselves.
The report reveals that the FEFC also feared a rapid move to wholesale self-assessment would give the first colleges to be given the privilege an advantage. "The group recognised that the introduction of college accreditation needed to be carefully managed," it says.
Colin Flint, principal of Solihull College and a member of the inspection working group, said: "Fierce competition and the continuing imperative on colleges to grow makes us suspicious of each other and others' success, when we really need to have confidence in each other.
"We still have a way to go before we reach a general trust which will make self-assessment possible."
In the second phase of inspection, which stretches to 2001, colleges will be expected to be more self-critical. Inspections will emphasise curriculum areas more, in line with pleas from colleges.
The FEFC suggests that colleges produce their own self-assessment report and set up their own review group including external members, a college inspector, governors, staff and students, as a step towards monitoring themselves.
Top-ranking colleges which successfully apply for accreditation will be allowed to rate themselves for four years, after which the status would be reviewed.
Mr Flint is confident the proposals will ultimately lead to full self-assessment, but fellow working group member David Whitbread of the Association of County Councils, feels they do not go far enough.
"I wanted to see more emphasis on self-evaluation and less on an inspection process which is about identifying failure. Ultimately institutions must be able to identify their problems and reform themselves."
Meanwhile other members of the working group are urging the FEFC to wait even longer than 2001, before introducing self-assessment.
Lewisham College principal Ruth Silver said: "In the beginning Terry Melia was very keen on self-assessment and ready to hand it over and I was the first one to say to him hold on a minute. I would like to see a move towards peer-assessment over the next five years before we move to self-assessment. "
The FEFC admits not all faults of the current inspection framework lie with colleges. Extended inspections - sometimes dragging on for as long as a year - will be abandoned in favour of a two-week limit.
The descriptions attached to the five inspection grades will be tightened after it was found many colleges took the wording of grade 3 - indicating "provision with a balance of strengths and weaknesses" - to mean "unsatisfactory". Now it has been termed "sound provision".