No penalties were imposed on Scottish colleges last year for failure to meet funding council targets - for the first time since student targets were introduced.
This is disclosed in the second set of performance indicators on staff and students in the 46 colleges for 2002-03, published this week by the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.
Colleges face a funding clawback if they under-recruit on their student targets by 2 per cent or more. There was no grant reduction last year and all but three colleges met or exceeded their targets regardless of the leeway.
The figures also show that colleges are recruiting more students than they are funded for - "modestly", as David Wann, the council's deputy chief executive, put it.
The council is currently funding colleges on a no growth basis, under direction from the Lifelong Learning Minister. But last year's 2.291 million "student units of measurement" (SUMs, weighted for different course costs) represent 3.5 per cent above the target for 2003-04.
Indeed, colleges are now delivering well above the target of 40,000 funded student places set by ministers, which represented a 10 per cent increase on enrolments in the base year of 1998-99. All three methods of measuring student numbers have exceeded that target over the past five years - the SUM count was up 16 per cent, enrolments representing presence on courses rose by 19 per cent and the headcount of individuals increased by 12 per cent.
Mr Wann said the overall picture from the indicators, which cover a host of factors from student satisfaction to staff qualifications, is one of "steady as it goes". There were no "gee-whiz headlines".
Mr Wann added: "For the first time we are able to start to compare performance year on year, and I am pleased to see the FE college sector continue to perform well.
"But we must never be complacent and that's part of the purpose of the performance indicators. They can be used as a management tool which can help colleges identify scope for improvement and achieve better value for money."
The council's report shows most of the figures were within one or two percentage points of those for 2001-02 and that "there is no consistent trend across the indicators". Any differences are "within the bounds of random variation".
Mr Wann said a three-year period might be needed to spot trends. Some figures might be affected by improvements in the quality of the data supplied by colleges and there was always inherent variability in the figures.
The council is particularly pleased that colleges are persuading many students who start out on taster courses to stay on, particularly since they are often from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some 94 per cent progressed past the first quarter of their study programme. There is a slight incentive for the colleges - they do not get funded for students who drop out in the first quarter.
Colleges are also continuing to play a key part in the social inclusion agenda: 27.9 per cent of students came from the 20 per cent most deprived postcode areas last year, up by 1.1 per cent on the previous year.
They also bring higher education to many of those students: 29 per cent of colleges' HE activity last year was being undertaken by this group.
Other findings are:
* 38 per cent of students are aged 25 and over.
* In HMI reports, 83 per cent of the elements in subject reviews were rated very good or good while 84 per cent of those in college-wide reviews were in that category.
* 76 per cent of students on FE programmes leading to a national qualification gained the award or progressed to the next year of study.
* 86 per cent of full-time permanent teaching staff have a formal teaching qualification.
* 93 per cent of students were satisfied with their college experience (up from 89 per cent in 2001).