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Business of education and education of business

Jim Scrimshaw, industrialist and chair of the Association of Colleges, starts a regular column this week in which he gives an overview of events affecting colleges and the world of business over the summer.

Business has been brisk in the past fortnight at Barking, the college I chair. Some 5,000 people have enrolled so far for courses. We expect the total, at the end of the three-week main enrolment period, to be around 8,500, with full-timers up a little on last year and part-time enrolment at about the 1997-98 level. The college is strongly committed to widening participation, and in a heavily industrialised area like ours, with relatively low unemployment, that means working closely with local employers.

Both Ford Motors and my own company, Marconi Communications at Dagenham, send many employees to the college or have their on-site training delivered by Barking and by Havering College. We know that some 16 per cent of the college's part-timers are paid for by their employer, but the proportion of students with some element of such support is certainly higher than that.

But is further education equipped to do more work with employers? Things are certainly looking generally better for the sector. From my point of view as chair of the AOC Board, I know that colleges have greatly welcomed the Comprehensive Spending Review settlement announced in July. It seems there will be real extra money for FE. We expect that most of the 500,000 fully-funded extra students will come to us. We were delighted that, as we argued, efficiency gains should be held to 1 per cent, at least for 1998-99. We understand that at long last there is funding to help colleges gear up their IT provision.

How are employers feeling in the current economic climate? Will they want to put more investment into the FE sector? Both sides know that they ought to get closer together. Survey after survey shows that graduates and level 3 (A-level equivalent) entrants to business rate the development they will receive as a key factor in deciding whether to accept a job offer. Right down through the business supply chain, there is unrelenting pressure on employees to take more responsibility and to develop multiple skills - the engineer now has to know about materials and packaging, information systems and working in teams. Continued training is needed; large companies prefer the flexibility of out-sourcing this training and development, while small companies have to buy it in. Colleges should be the natural choice for that purchase. For their part, colleges don't have to be sold the business benefits of working with companies or the arguments for widening participation through employee development.

But how far is Government encouraging business and colleges to work closely together? There are some mixed messages here. The Further Education Funding Council, following the criticisms of franchising made in the Education and Employment Select Committee Report this summer, is to raise the contribution which employers are required to make to off-site collaborative provision from 25 per cent to 50 per cent. It is by no means clear what the impact of this will be on such provision. Meanwhile, the Department for Education and Employment is currently considering its position on reducing the proportion of business representation on college governing bodies to a maximum of one third. Many colleges have raised objections to the AOC about this mandatory limit and its possible impact on business commitment to their college. The University for Industry must, one would think, have the closest possible engagement with colleges but at the moment that essential connection is only just beginning to be explored.

The reality is practice which is very variable across localities, and what appears sometimes to be fragmented policy. The AOC will certainly be pressing hard for "joined-up" policy for the business and FE relationship. The newly appointed chairs of the Regional Development Agencies, many of whom have good FE links, give cause for confidence. That is all the more needed in this period of global economic turbulence which will inevitably have its repercussions on the growth plans of most national and local businesses.

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