Colleges are turning the spotlight on themselves in an attempt to improve much-criticised quality assurance systems which aim to raise standards and improve student satisfaction.
Most colleges are carrying out surveys of student and staff satisfaction following critical inspection reports. Surveys are increasingly being used to find out what people really think of courses, teaching and buildings.
Three years after Further Education Funding Council inspectors began reporting on colleges, quality assurance remains the area where most score badly. Inspectors say that it is neither linked properly to students' learning nor to raising standards of achievement.
Colleges which attain top grades for the curriculum, management and governance often get no more than grade 4 for quality assurance.
This failure has set back by up to four years plans to give college managements greater self-inspection powers. It suggests that excellence in coping with immediate demands is not always matched by a longer-term critical view of student needs.
Part of the problem is that the demands for quality assurance are still relatively new. Mark Griffiths, a senior FEFC inspector, said many systems had been revised or developed from scratch after incorporation and had taken time to become effective. "Colleges are getting used to the idea of setting targets and monitoring performance but still have some way to go."
The funding system - requiring colleges to record course completion and student success rates to qualify for money - should act as an incentive to link quality assurance to teaching. But that means constant vigilance.
"It is not an annual event or management exercise," Mr Griffiths said. "It depends on whether students are satisfied with what they receive and ensuring their responses are monitored through questionnaires and student committees. "
There are plenty of examples of good work for other colleges to observe. Runshaw College in Lancashire became just the 11th college out of nearly 300 inspected to receive a grade 1 for quality assurance. Features include a customer satisfaction unit, surveys of employees and regular meetings with stakeholder groups such as employers.
Vice principal Mike Edwards said staff were encouraged to work as teams while the college adopted a "no blame" culture so to encourage people to tackle problems.
"Students have become very good at letting us know their true feelings. We are in a very competitive area and must therefore be good to survive. You have to continually check with your stakeholders that you are giving them what they need."
Stella Dixon, who has carried out extensive research into quality assurance for the Further Education Development Agency, said it was no longer enough for a college to show a large number of students had enrolled for a course. "They are forced to look at what happens during the learning programme, including the quality of teaching," she said.
Mid-Warwickshire College recently helped to produce a computer package to help colleges improve the layout and content questionnaires handed out to students. The FE Quality Solution also includes advice on what to do with the information once it is collected.
Bob Nunn, Mid-Warwickshire's quality systems manager, said the ideas in the package were not earth shattering, but were nevertheless an improvement on the systems in many colleges. "Some of the simplest things are not in place, particularly in some sixth-form colleges which are new to the sector and the concept of customer satisfaction."
Mid-Warwickshire, with 2,500 full-time and 12,000 part-time students, surveys one third of students each year. Survey data is collated by a clerical assistant and the results considered by a sub-committee of the academic board. "Quality assurance should not be a burden on staff," said Mr Nunn. "But it's pointless having the results of a questionnaire if you've not got the systems in place to do something about it."