Army battles for students

A multi-billion-pound forces training centre could be a major competitor for local colleges, reports Joseph Lee

The armed forces could compete with further education colleges for students when a new multi-billion-pound training centre is complete.

Bids are now in for a combined training centre for the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force to replace many of the Ministry of Defence's 30 existing sites.

Forces trainees at the centre, aged 17 and over, will be able to take qualifications such as A-levels and NVQs in skills including aircraft and electrical engineering to information technology.

Places at the college could also be available to civilians to fill local skills shortages, putting it in competition with local FE colleges in South Wales or the Midlands - the two likely sites.

A spokesman for the MoD said: "That's something we're asking the bidders to look at. Obviously, there are certain issues - security being one of them - but if we are comfortable it can be done, we will look at it."

He said the military wanted to have more contact with the general public to support its recruitment work, and the planned new super-college might help.

The contract, worth pound;10 billion over 25 years, will bring together specialised training for the three armed services for the first time, covering 15,000 troops a year.

The ministry expects the centre to improve consistency of standards and cuts costs.

Bidders have been asked to look at ways of transforming military training, replacing "chalk and talk" with high-tech simulations and e-learning.

But the contract is not intended to address basic skills in the armed forces, which were heavily criticised by the Adult Learning Inspectorate last year when it found discovered a bomb disposal expert had difficulties in reading.

Two bids have now been submitted to the MoD. One consortium, Metrix, which includes defence technology company QinetiQ and property company Land Securities, has already indicated that it favours RAF St Athan, in South Wales. The other, MC3 Training, includes defence firm BAe Systems and builders Carillion and favours RAF Cosford in Shropshire.

According to consultants working for one of the consortia, the contract would create 2,300 jobs in the area chosen.

Lecturers at the existing training centres are a mixture of armed forces personnel and civilians employed by the MoD. They are expected to be transferred to the winning consortium.

John Edwards, chief executive of the West Midlands regional development agency, said it would be the boost that the area needed after the closure of the Rover factory last year. He said: "We cannot underestimate just how much Cosford needs to win this crucial and lucrative contract. The potential benefits for the county and the wider region are immense."

But RAF St Athan is also in need of the jobs, after a decision to end fast jet maintenance work there. The privatisation and centralsiation of training was prompted by a 2001 review which criticised the fragmented provision and poor condition of the MoD's many training centres.

The same review led to the rebuilding of Welbeck, the MOD's sixth form college in Leicestershire. The new building was opened in September.

A decision on the winning bid is expected in July and contracts are due to be signed next year.

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