Colleges are gearing up for a big rise in complaints about the quality of courses from students keen to exercise their rights.
Principals say students are using college charters to make increasingly sophisticated claims about, for example, the impact of staff redundancies on course quality.
Most criticisms come from mature and day-release students who have higher expectations than school-leavers, enquiries by The TES have revealed. The Colleges' Employers' Forum, before merging with the Association for Colleges, issued guidelines to managers who deal with dissatisfied students. Continuing attempts to recruit more adults into FE must lead to an increase in complaints.
The Further Education Funding Council has reported a steady rise in the numbers of students and parents who, not happy with their college's response, are turning to it for help.
Numbers of complaints reaching the FEFC are relatively small, but rising. Colleges contacted by The TES typically received 12 complaints last year under the charter - suggesting a total of around 5,500 nationally. The FEFC was asked to investigate 26 complaints between May 1995 and February 1996, compared with 17 in the previous year and a half.
However, two-thirds of these investigations resulted in no action being taken against colleges.
Ben Bennett, president of the Association of Principals of Colleges, said he was reassured that the vast majority of complaints were not upheld, although he criticised FEFC procedures as being "written by civil servants for civil servants".
Mr Bennett, principal of Aylesbury College, said he had received few complaints to date but expected this to change. "I anticipate more as we recruit extra adults who have different expectations to 16 to 19-year-olds who have just left school."
College charters, designed to back up the Government's Charter for Further Education, should include information about teaching programmes, the level of support a student is entitled to and details of exams and course fees.
Tony Colton, principal of Matthew Boulton College, said the colleges should be more sensitive to public criticism. "We actually never hear a lot of the complaints we ought to know about."
Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, said one student mentioned the charter when writing to object to proposed redundancies of lecturers. "It is seen by students and their parents as a powerful tool in the debate," he said.
John Brennan, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, said: "The number of complaints made under the charter was small compared with the three million students who enrol each year." In some cases, colleges were at fault but the FEFC evidence suggested that students sometimes did not read the literature properly before pursuing a complaint, he added.
The National Union of Students insists that only a minority of colleges tell students they can take their case to the FEFC and ultimately the Secretary of State. NUS research officer John Offord said: "There is no proper system for gauging the level of student dissatisfaction at college level. We get quite a lot of cases, of which we can only fire-fight about 10 per cent."
The lecturers' union NATFHE remains sceptical of charters, suggesting that managers try to persuade students not to complain about the college, directing them instead towards individual lecturers.
When a student at a Midlands college complained that he received only 90 minutes' tuition a week, not the agreed three hours, the teacher was blamed. NATFHE forced the college to take the blame for staff shortages.
Geraldine Egan, NATFHE east Midlands regional officer, said: "You can't expect students to know the best way to tackle a problem. The college is not going to explain it to them."