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For better, for worse

A new report* from the Further Education Development Agency examines the kind of relationship colleges have with the private sector. Many cited activities such as work placements, education-business partnership initiatives, and networking, would fall outside David Arscott's definition (see previous article) of a long-term contractual relationship. But enough colleges did report genuine partnership activity for the authors to conclude: "FE colleges can be a major resource for business."

But there are caveats. Real partnerships are thin on the ground. Lots of colleges have relationships with local companies and many run training contracts. Some have attempted to build partnerships only to find that it takes two to tango.

Milton Keynes College experimented with a logistics centre, to offer management training as a partnership with local companies, but the project folded. "It never became the thriving programme we anticipated," says David Wood, a spokesman for the college. He argues that there are difficulties standing in the way of colleges looking for partnership.

"There's often a conflict of interest between the college and business," he says, and he echoes Alastair Morton's point that, for many businesses, the local FE college is not the first port of call when they are looking for specialised training. "It's partly to do with image of the sector," says Mr Wood. "Companies may not see colleges as a very sexy partner, and the student-centred philosophy doesn't sit well with thebusiness perspective."

Another imponderable is what view the new local learning and skills councils will take of partnerships. Training and enterprise councils have been supportive, but the skills councils are still an unknown quantity. There's a suspicion that any radical proposal from a college could have to wait while the councils bed in. The relationship between regional development agencies and the skills councils will be crucial.

"The rhetoric suggests that it's going to be a fair and transparent process," says Rowland Foote, vice-principal of Dudley College. "But there are indications that there could be tension - there could be turf wars."

Whatever the regulatory structure that prevails, the Rover-Dudley deal demonstrates the benefits of partnerships with local companies. But not every college has a Rover on its doorstep, a point Mr Foote acknowledges. "Other colleges have to become adaptable," he says. "Take rural colleges: the majority of their provision is probably not agricultural. It's probably diversified into things such as rural tourism, into computing, IT, e-commerce."

In the absence of a large local employer, he believes colleges need to exploit netorks of small to medium-sized businesses. "It's more about the ability of an organisation to survive," he says. "By sharing a resource and by being creative you can create a partnership on the basis of perceived need." For Mr Foote, colleges have little choice in the decision. "Partnerships are the future of FE, they are the future of industry," he says.

Alastair Morton wonders whether partnership is the right word to use. "The problem with the term is that people see it as being applied to anything. The type of partnerships that work are based on fundamental principles which you could apply anywhere: trust and interest."

"People think that partnership is going to offer some kind of super security, they are looking for safe custom for X years. That's nonsense: custom is as good as your last performance. If you pride yourself on delivering a service to your client, then you'll find a way to overcome problems. If you're looking for sinecure, then partnerships won't develop."

The other side of a successful marriage is its ability to survive the bad times: for better, for worse. The Dudley centre has given some classroom space to the local JobCentre and Benefits Agency for interviewing Rover workers who have either chosen redundancy or been laid off. The closure of the Longbridge plant is still a very real possibility, and it's a reality that Dudley's managers have had to face.

Rowland Foote says that if the plant does close, there will be an even bigger need for the centre as thousands of workers requiring new skills flood on to the jobs market. The reality is that those skills would almost certainly not involve the expensive kit that managers have invested in so heavily, but the point is made that the centre wouldn't close.

With Rover's approval, Dudley is seeking to diversify even further at the same time as seeking additional markets for the skillset it caters for. Trips to Brazil have been made to investigate the possibility of training workers for the huge expansion in its machine- tool-based industry.

The Rover crisis demonstrated the flexibility of the deal that the two partners have agreed. The situation changed and Dudley's provision changed with it. There was no renegotiation of the contract. In fact, Alastair Morton bridles at the very possibility.

"I would never want to be in a partnership where you hold people to a contract," he says. "Who wants to have to fight somebody to achieve the quality of service you want? We never look at our contract. It sits in a drawer."

*"Investing partners: further education, economic development and regional policy." By Simon James and Greg Clark.Available from Feda: 020 7840 5400

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