Classroom education has suffered from massive expansion in work-based training, according to the verdict of inspectors from the Further Education Funding Council on one of the biggest providers of so-called franchise courses.
But inspectors praised staff at Halton College in Cheshire for their range of courses. The college, famous for its national training deal with supermarket giant Tesco and other high-profile deals, has developed a web of training across the length and breadth of Britain.
Long-distance courses, franchised out to employers and private trainers, have been greeted with deep scepticism by many in further education, who argue that quality can suffer. And inspectors sounded a warning over Halton's franchise work, reporting that workplace trainees were slow to achieve qualifications.
The inspectors said: "Rapid expansion of the dispersed provision has had some adverse effects on curriculum provision in the college. A majority of the curriculum areas inspected were judged to have some weaknesses in curriculum delivery.
"The thinking which informs the dispersed developments has so far had limited impact on provision in the college. For example, links with industry are rarely used in the design of college-based courses.
"Many students in dispersed provision take a great deal of time to achieve their qualifications, even taking into account difficulties associated with work-based provision.
"The slow achievement of qualifications is a cause for concern in many areas. For example, from a cohort of 865 candidates who started NVQ level 1 in cleaning building interiors in May 1995, only 16 per cent had achieved their qualifications by October 1996.
On many business courses the rate at which students achieve their qualification is slow and, on some courses, the number of students withdrawing is high.
"The college can demonstrate that, in many cases, the reasons for students withdrawing from the course are because of their employers' actions.
However, even when these figures are excluded from the analysis, results are poor. Only 10 per cent of those enrolled between November 1994 and November 1995 have achieved an NVQ level 1 or 2 catering qualification."
The report comes ahead of a Further Education Funding Council study into the quality of franchised courses across the college sector and at the height of an inquiry into the principle of franchising.
Conservative Ministers ordered the study, due to be published this summer, but it will fall on to the desks of a Labour administration which will rely heavily on commissioned courses to fulfil both its "Welfare to Work" and "University for Industry" commitments.