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Brave new world of business acumen

It means a big cultural adjustment, but colleges have to learn the language of employers and engage them in meeting training needs, the CBI says

It is still far from commonplace to hear the words piecework, night shift, key account managers and returns on investment applied to the business of further education. But the language of industry and business looks like becoming the lingua franca for much of the FE sector.

An insight into the changes afoot in FE is provided in a new report from the Confederation of British Industry. Reaching further: workforce development through employer-FE college partnership is a sometimes astonishing document, not for the novelty of ideas it contains, but rather because it reveals the currency and application of such ideas across further education.

The report, as Richard Lambert, the CBI's director general, says in his foreword, seeks to present a robust business case for collaboration between employers and colleges. A baker's dozen of case studies drive home its points.

Neither Mr Lambert nor Roger McClure, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, who also writes a foreword, kid themselves about the scale of the challenges ahead.

"Only half of employers report having links with FE colleges and fewer still use colleges to develop the skills of their employees," Mr Lambert writes, drawing on CBI and Edexcel research of last year.

Mr McClure gets down to brass tacks. "Colleges have to speak in the language of business, illustrating the bottom-line benefits of skills and how these skills can have a beneficial impact on the market," he writes, although he states, helpfully, that it is not a one-way street and that employers have to do their bit.

Ann Griffiths, vice-principal of Telford College of Arts and Technology, in Shropshire, sums up the employer-college relationship more colourfully: "They saw us as a dinosaur knocking on the door and questioned how in touch we were to carry out training for them."

In summary, the report exhorts colleges to commit themselves to employer engagement so that it permeates every aspect of the college's approach.

Graham Howe, employer engagement director for West Nottinghamshire College, in Mansfield, warns: "Don't do employer engagement unless you are committed to it. Don't dabble and fail, as it will hurt employers' views of the FE sector as a whole."

The report says successful engagement involves recognising employers as clients. This "can represent a major cultural adjustment".

Doug Boynton, Telford's principal, is blunter. "I believe there is a decision to be made now by general FE colleges. Do you want to remain a college just for full-time 16- to 19-year-old students, or a college that serves your business community?"

Teresa Frith, former director of business development at Barnfield College, in Bedfordshire, is more specific. "One of the problems is that FE colleges use training language when they go into businesses and say `How many NVQs would you like? How many management training packages would you like?'

"And businesses think `How the hell would I know? I need people to be able to do a job - the qualification doesn't really matter.'"

Getting the right staff in place to deal with employer demand is crucial, the report says. Flexible contracts and pools of freelance tutors and consultants are the way to go.

April Hayhurst, director of employment responsiveness at Derby College, says: "The key driver for teaching staff is their duty to ensure students have a good learning experience, whereas there's a contrary requirement by clients for a good return on their training investment. Staff need to understand this."

This is all radical thinking for a sector where the backbone of many colleges are permanent full and part-time lecturers teaching off-the-peg qualifications to students, rather than clients.

What is encouraging about the CBI report is that, through its case studies, it reveals how far many colleges have already moved towards delivering what employers and employees really want. As Mr Lambert acknowledges: "Strong links already exist between many businesses and colleges. The need now is to strengthen existing ties and to encourage more businesses and more colleges to work in partnership."


Cleveland College of Art and Design

500 HE and 600 FE students in Hartlepool and Middlesborough

A big challenge for the college is that its contracts require all staff to fulfil a high teaching load. To overcome the lack of availability of in- house staff, the college has developed links with other organisations, such as Tees Valley Arts, which aims to contribute to the regeneration of the North East through creative arts projects, to provide support.

The college has also drawn up a register of staff available to deliver short, tailored courses.

A key business partner is Big Studio Glass Design. The company was able to specify not only the level at which it thought training courses should be pitched for its employees, but also how it preferred the course to be taught.


Barnfield College: 12,000 students on five campuses in Luton and Bedford

Barnfield to Business was set up as a single business-facing contact point for employers as well as a managing agency for employer training provision.

The college deals with the challenge of peaks and troughs in employer training demand by paying assessors per employee trained, rather than a guaranteed salary. The college admits it is a challenge to recruit assessors, who are expected to work flexibly while being paid "several thousand pounds" less than class-based FE lecturers.

A key business partner is London Luton Airport. The college has built on its first course in customer service for airport staff of five years ago. Today it delivers many courses for Luton and other airport companies.


Hadlow College: 2,400 full- and part-time FE and HE students at Tonbridge, Kent

Five years ago, Hadlow was in bad shape financially. Some NVQ courses had been suspended. Since then, its turnover has doubled to Pounds 11 million, much of it as a result of refocusing to meet employer needs.

The Hadlow business and community development unit, under the branding Hadlow Corporate, employs 18 staff, including eight assessors responsible for managing all aspects of its relationships with employers, including analyses of skills needs and the design and teaching of programmes. There are no fixed term dates and an employee can start a course at any time.

A key business partner is Barclays Bank, for which the college developed a foundation degree in rural business management.

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