Why are you here? asks Sir Andrew
Bureaucracy, lack of direction, underinvestment and the poor public image of further education are at the heart of the questions posed by the Foster review.
Sir Andrew Foster - appointed by the Government to report on FE's future - said the sector was riddled with confusion over what colleges' roles should be and which organisations should manage and regulate them.
"It feels like a battleground from which a lot of bodies have never been removed," he said.
He told the Learning and Skills Development Agency conference on Tuesday that his inquiry would seek to answer 10 questions.
The most fundamental would involve an examination of the purpose of FE. Sir Andrew believes confusion over this basic question has contributed to FE's poor public image.
He also warned that his conclusions may not please ministers, particularly as he addresses the shortage of capital investment in further education.
"We have had a lack of investment in infrastructure, but now we are seeing a lot of new hospitals, a lot of new schools," he said. "I suppose I'm posing the question, where is the comparable new investment in this sector?
"A lot of these questions will not necessarily be comfortable ones for the Government. But that is the nature of these reviews. It isn't necessarily to do the department's role for them."
He indicated that he would also criticise the ways the sector spends some of its money.
"In every public service I have been involved with, there will never be enough money. That's just how it is," he said.
"The starting point is how clear is it that the money you have is being used well. I am not sure that it is all that clear to me at a first glance."
Sir Andrew said he had been impressed with the work of many colleges, but urged FE to become better at explaining this "story" of what they had achieved to the public.
"To hear people talk about getting educational opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise have, it's the most hair-tingling thing that you can ever get," he said.
Sir Andrew indicated that he would write his report using the experiences of learners after a "staggering" 500 students contacted him with their views.
The report, due in October, is expected to form a blueprint for action on further education by the Government.
It follows Sir Andrew's earlier inquiry into bureaucracy in FE.
Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told the conference she was now setting up a bureaucracy review group to respond to those concerns. She said it will have an independent chair and a remit to examine red tape at the DfES, Learning and Skills Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
Meanwhile, the Learning and Skills Development Agency was hosting its last conference. It will split into two new bodies next April, Ms Kelly announced.
The Quality Improvement Agency for Lifelong Learning will be led by Sir Geoffrey Holland and Andrew Thomson, the current chairman and chief executive of the LSDA. It will have a strategic role in raising standards in FE and training.
A new charity operating on a commercial basis, the Learning and Skills Network, will take over the agency's hands-on delivery work.
Foster's 10 questions for FE
1 What is the main purpose of FE colleges?
2 How would you simplify and clarify the management and accountability system?
3 How would you improve the learners' experience?
4 How would you improve employer engagement?
5 How would you drive quality improvement for colleges?
6 How would you develop corporate governance for colleges?
7 How would you build up the reputation of FE?
8 What are the most important college "workforce needs" ?
9 What role should FE colleges play in developing the vocational pathways described in the 14-19 White Paper?
10 How do we develop sector and college leadership?