America has been able to use generous funding to buy success in its colleges in spite of a weak inspection system, according to Britain's top further education inspector.
Terry Melia, Further Education Funding Council chief inspector, said the United States' wealth had supported the sector even though staying-on rates were low and inspection methods were being criticised for lack of rigour.
His comments follow the publication of a report on American community colleges by an FEFC team. The report highlights mounting concern over low inspection standards just as budgets are beginning to contract.
Community colleges - which offer both occupationally specific and degree-level programmes to high school leavers and adults - are part of a strongly autonomous tradition, and regulate themselves after being accepted by a national agency.
But calls are now being made for a change in the system to measure colleges' achievement against external standards. The report finds "evidence that as budgets contract, politicians scrutinise and public attitudes toughen, the approach to quality issues is developing a sharper analytical edge".
Mr Melia said: "Inspection is a peculiarly European thing. America does not have the same arrangement, but also has a lot more money and has almost been able to buy some of its success."
The report also reveals American colleges are not concerned with the issue of parity of esteem between academic and vocational education which so preoccupies their counterparts on this side of the Atlantic.
Most lecturers do not believe parity is either attainable or necessary, it says.