The seven messages
1 Programme design
Between 75 to 90 per cent of course programmes were well-designed. In most cases, students and staff were allowed to shape them.
Good links with employers ensured that, in up to three-quarters of disciplines, programmes were relevant to the world of work. But employers' advice should be sought in designing new programmes and extending work placements.
Flexible entry was a strong feature in all colleges, benefiting students with little or no formal qualifications. These arrangements included outreach centres, mobile study centres, vocational qualifications being delivered by colleges in the work place, students "infilling" into parts of existing programmes, flexible learning units, and open and distance learning.
2 Student achievement
The performance of students was measured by the "student achievement ratio by unit of learning" (SARU), which showed that between 75 to 90 per cent of colleges had SARUs of 85 per cent or above.
The "student programme achievement ratio" (SPAR), which gauged successful completion of programmes, revealed wide variations across departments and subjects. Although between 75 to 90 per cent of colleges had SPARs of 70 per cent or above, reasons for low completion rates were not always pursued.
Lecturers had appropriate expectations and students generally knew what was required of them. But in some cases, lecturers' expectations of more able students were too low.
Lecturers had, however, begun to use performance indicators on student achievement, which increasingly led course teams to pursue possible causes of failure.
3 Learning and teaching
This was done in a purposeful and friendly manner. People returning to studying after many years away appreciated staff support.
Lecturers' varied teaching methods were praised but the planning of teaching left room for improvement as did the quality of teaching packs. The best materials had self-learning features, but some students found it hard to follow written instructions and other forms of self-tuition and required more direction.
Students liked a mixture of teaching methods, including computer-based learning and the use of audio-visual resources. But these were outstripped by demand.
Assessment and internal verification were generally effective. But in some cases there was too much assessment.
Evaluation of learning and teaching was not yet prominent, although student satisfaction surveys were beginning to have an effect.
4 Support services
Students were generally well-informed about services ranging from guidance and financial advice to refugee support and nursery provision. Between 50 and 75 per cent of colleges had comprehensive guidance services based in good quality accommodation.
Pre-entry guidance was well-targeted at prospective students. All full-time students received induction in course content, assessment and student services. But part-time students did not fare so well and the quality of pre-exit guidance varied considerably.
Students took part in regular reviews of progress, but a few colleges (under 15 per cent) should clarify the purpose of these guidance sessions and improve the way staff handled them.
Flexible and open learning units were now commonplace, but their links to academic departments were not always adequate and they often did not come within quality assurance arrangements.
The stock of books was sometimes limited, but the range of media was good as was access to information technology, which helped flexible delivery of the curriculum through the use of e-mail.
5 Marketing and liaison
Colleges focused much of their marketing on schools but also included radio, TV and cinema advertising. Some school-college links were collaborative, although other colleges regarded schools only as competitors.
Links with industry were effective but colleges should ensure this applied to individual departments as well. There was a strong commitment to community liaison.
Academic staffing levels were generally good but there was often too little clerical or technician support for particular departments.
Over 80 per cent of full-time lecturers had teaching qualifications but only a small minority of part-timers were teacher-trained. Staff development required attention: in under 15 per cent of colleges it did not focus on learning and teaching. The same proportion had made little progress with staff appraisal.
Many improvements in accommodation had been made since incorporation but college development plans revealed a substantial backlog remained. But accommodation was well-managed and rooms were much better used.
While the availability of specialist equipment was good or very good in up to 90 per cent of colleges, there should be rolling programmes to replace or upgrade IT facilities and appoint technician staff to support their use.
7 Management and quality assurance
Productivity, measured by student hours and student numbers, had increased in almost all colleges. New business was being sought and new clients recruited.
Departmental leadership was variable, with significant weaknesses in a few colleges. But it was mostly good or very good: the best managed departments featured innovation, efficient time-tabling, and growing links with employers.
Quality assurance systems were judged good or very good in most colleges, a development which itself was considered a good achievement in a relatively short time. But they were not always applied consistently, particularly in analysing data and taking action to improve students' learning.
Under 15 per cent of colleges had begun to introduce classroom observation by senior staff to assess teaching quality. Colleges also used student questionnaires to obtain feedback. These approaches were working well.