More than half of colleges may have benefited from lax rules that allowed their success rates to be exaggerated, new figures suggest.
A survey among 120 college staff at a conference organised by the Pearson Research Institute found that more than 60 per cent admitted their institutions had not previously been reporting success rates in line with new rules set out last September.
Despite concerns that stepping outside these rules would cause success rates to be artificially inflated, and the threat of a crackdown by teaching watchdog Ofsted and the funding bodies, nearly one in five of these said they would still not be changing their practices.
When FE Focus first reported the concerns last year, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) said it did not believe colleges had exaggerated results on a large scale, but the new figures suggest the banned practices may have been more widespread than was admitted.
Nick Linford, director of the institute, said because the rules were unclear, many colleges would not have known they were doing anything wrong. Mr Linford said that everyone was under great pressure to show improved success rates.
"LSC bonuses depended on success rates going up dramatically year on year," he said. "About pound;30 million was paid in bonuses over seven years, partly for hitting public service agreement targets and partly on success rate targets. There was a massive push from the LSC to do whatever you could to have high success rates."
It was not clear whether the new regime would result in success rates falling this year, because other factors could outweigh the downward pressure of the tighter rules on reporting results, Mr Linford said. The guidance was issued too late to have affected last year's results.
Karl Bentley, a senior consultant with auditors RSM Tenon, told the conference that in 20 funding audits across the country, there were issues at every one in reporting student results in ways that could have inflated success rates.
Some of the most common issues were changing the start and end dates for courses, altering learning aims to a lower level course, and poor control of provision in partner organisations, which meant colleges could not even prove some courses existed. It was "like 1996 all over again", Mr Bentley said.
He added that the reduction in audit scrutiny by the LSC in 2004, a new generation of staff who were used to less scrutiny and in some cases a simple failure to read the guidance had contributed to the problems.
New guidance was issued by the FE funding body in September to prevent these practices, after Ofsted had expressed concerns about the speed of rising success rates, which hit their target of 80 per cent two years earlier than expected.
Recent Ofsted reports show evidence that inspectors are continuing to examine these issues carefully. One college's report notes that on some courses, learners transfer to different, less challenging courses late in the year, while a number of other college inspections note that the improvement in success rates stalled after 200708.