Colleges must think like businesses to get more business, claims a leading industry representative.
The FE sector needs to sell and adapt its wares to meet employer needs, instead of waiting for employers to come shopping, Alan Mitchell, assistant director of the CBI in Scotland, said. If it does, he believes, the sector could make millions of pounds.
Despite record spending on staff training by employers, only 2 per cent of companies' training budgets goes to the FE sector, according to CBI research. Of a UK-wide training spend of pound;23 billion by business, pound;50 million is spent in Scotland on colleges.
Mr Mitchell was speaking at the annual conference of the Scottish Further Education Unit in Glasgow last week. "Ten per cent growth a year for three or four years is achievable, starting from such a low base," said Mr Mitchell. "There is a lot of money to be had because employers are spending more than before. It wouldn't take colleges much to grow their commercial budget from nothing to a million."
Colleges needed to be more flexible and think outside the "nine to five, Monday to Friday" mindset, he said. "Too many don't deliver the type of qualifications and education that employers need.
"Employers prefer their expenditure on training to go to independent learning providers, as they fit in better with business."
He admitted that employers also had a role to play. "Businesses need to be better at articulating what they need," he said.
College staff should visit businesses to discover their training needs first-hand and match those needs with what the college can offer. "Only about a quarter of businesses ever get contacted by an FE college," said Mr Mitchell. "If colleges did approach business, they would have an unquestioned trust and that is a very powerful place from which to start. I believe the college sector in Scotland wants to be engaged in that process."
Christina Potter, chair of the SFEU board of management and principal of Elmwood College in Fife, said: "Perhaps what employers want is skills and we are constrained by qualification and funding frameworks."
John Stone, chief executive of the English-based Learning and Skills Network, said colleges had to rethink. "We're doing it wrong.
Qualifications are different from skills. We have a fixation with qualifications in this country, which is linked to the achievement of a target we can measure," he said.
Sandy Watson, chairman of Angus College board of management, suggested that the running of colleges could be improved if boards were able to assess themselves and identify the action they needed to take. This would involve drawing up an agreed checklist, covering areas such as performance and financial management, relationships with staff and engaging with local communities.
Mr Watson, former chief executive of Angus Council, said he had been impressed since taking over as chair by the way in which its strategic plan was "carefully crafted through a participative process, translated into detailed operational terms, and then worked through and monitored systematically and methodically".
College boards needed to make people more aware of what they were doing.
"It seems that we should be more visible, perhaps to our political masters, and certainly to the funding council and to our staff."
He suggested one way was through engaging with the debate on the reform of public services. It would be "ill-advised" for colleges to stand back from that, particularly at the local level. "If the public sector sits on its hands and does not produce innovative locally-driven solutions, then the executive will lose patience and a one-size-fits-all template will be imposed," he warned.