Two years of measures to cut red tape for colleges have had little effect and may have made things even worse, principals and managers believe.
A report for the Centre for Excellence in Leadership found little evidence of the increased "trust and transparency" which was judged essential to cutting bureaucracy.
The authors shadowed principals and managers to assess how their work had changed for the study, called Whatever Happened to the War on Bureaucracy?
One principal told them: "We spend too much time weighing the pig and not enough fattening it."
The researchers found that attempts to reduce the complexity of funding have yet to be felt at college level and principals feel the interim measures are adding to their burden.
"Clearly, changes have been made, but those on the receiving end are unclear whether they are improvements," the authors said.
"The sense of an 'audit culture' persists and there is a perception of 'a lack of joined-up thinking' in the initiatives being introduced."
The study acknowledges that more than 100 colleges now enjoy a lighter-touch regulatory regime.
But it said there was little evidence of overall improvement on the ground since the Bureaucracy Task Force was asked to tackle the issue in 2002, in response to a campaign by The TES and the Association of Colleges.
The task force, chaired by Sir George Sweeney, made 39 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the Government and the Learning and Skills Council.
But Sir George warned that changes, especially to the funding system, would take time.
Two years later, the same message applies. Sir George said: "If it's a war on bureaucracy, we are still engaged in the campaign. Things can always be done faster, but I think we are making progress."
He said self-regulation would provide the long-term solution to red tape, and the National Audit Office had already said FE was ready for the responsibility. But the authors of the latest report suggest that colleges share part of the blame for the lack of improvement, as some principals were reluctant to take advantage of a loosening of the audit rules.
Memories of past punitive regimes, fastidious governors and professional idealism meant they wanted to be "squeaky clean".
While colleges are wary of becoming too open with the Learning and Skills Council, the LSC is likely to find it difficult to accept self-regulation after high-profile college failures.
"Past history and present perceptions make it hard to see how mutual trust will be achieved," the researchers said.
John Brennan, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it was a common view among principals that as some red tape was cut away, more would be added.
He doubted the effectiveness of the Government's two-year-old Bureaucracy Reduction Group, currently seeking a new chairman:"When ministers have got an initiative in mind, the fact that it will generate a bit of extra bureaucracy isn't going to stop it," he said.
A DfES spokesman said the study was useful, but subjective.
"Perceptions are an important indicator of where the burdens lie," he said.
"But we really need better objective measures of bureaucracy to understand the current position, set realistic targets for reductions, and know whether we are achieving them."
Work already carried out suggested that some red tape was "invented internally" by the colleges, and a culture change was necessary at all levels of the system, he said.