Colleges are hitting back at criticisms that they are failing to meet the needs of employers.
In a series of recent reports, including one from the sector's own inspectors, further education colleges were accused of putting the needs of individual students before those of employers and the local economy.
The sector was accused of delaying offering alternative forms of training after the national collapse in part-time, day-release enrolments. These became scarce when cash-strapped employers cut their training budgets.
Leading voices in the sector admit some have responded too slowly to changing times, but say it shows up a continuing conflict between students' broad educational needs and the specific training requirements of employers.
They say there is a wide range of good practice in employer links. They say employers must shoulder some of the blame where these break down .
John Brennan, director of policy at the Association of Colleges, believes employers' requirements for trainees are often narrower than the training called for by students themselves.
"What a lot of students want is a marketable qualification which will be beneficial in the long-term, not just an immediate skill which will enable them to do a particular job.
"Many employers don't want that - they regard a lot of the content of qualifications as irrelevant to their particular needs."
More comprehensive and time-consuming qualifications cost employers more - an investment many fear will be repaid with the departure of their newly-trained staff to other companies.
Studies, including the Beaumont Report, have shown that many employers, particularly smaller firms, are still wary or ignorant of national vocational qualifications.
Where companies are increasing their training effort, almost two-thirds turn most frequently to private-sector providers, according to the recent Skill Needs in Britain 1995 report. Colleges argue the trend shows that many firms are anxious to make savings on training.
Colleges insist that, contrary to the findings of the Further Education Funding Council's recent College Responsiveness survey, they have often tried hard to offer new methods of training delivery, including flexible roll-on roll-off programmes and weekend and evening courses. But employers, hazy about their training needs, have not always responded quickly.
One principal said: "We have offered courses in the Christmas and Easter holiday periods and firms have told us that is when they close down their operations."
Colleges say employer links have been made harder by continuing confusion over franchising, when colleges pay for courses run by schools, industry and voluntary organisations off the premises. Some have capitalised on this "grey area" to set up large-scale training deals. But while these have boosted their student numbers and income, questions have been raised over quality. Training and enterprise councils, worried that colleges may threaten their own role as training purchasers, have spearheaded criticisms that public cash is being used to subsidise existing training.
The long-awaited report of the FEFC's franchising working group has yet to be published, but at a recent meeting with college finance directors Sir William Stubbs, FEFC chief executive, warned that a clamp-down on deals with employers could follow. The FEFC is taking legal advice on the issue.
Colleges are often coy about franchising arrangements with employers, preferring to avoid the term altogether.
One deputy principal, whose Midlands college is setting up training agreements with major national firms, said: "We genuinely believe we are adding value and providing a quality of training that was not there before.
"But though we are being told to respond to employers, we are not being told how far we can go."
David Gibson, a former president of the Association of College Principals and principal of City College, Manchester, says close industry links have been at the heart of a successful expansion drive which allowed his institution to secure almost half its income from non-FEFC sources.
He admits some staff feared colleges might neglect their duty to students in the battle to consider employers' training needs at incorporation. He believes it has been shown that tension between student and employer needs can be resolved by close partnerships.
"If you are genuinely going to train people to make them employable then the skills they will need in industry should be the skills they will leave here with. Without strong industry links we would be in an educational cul-de-sac. "
But colleges are more willing to accept criticisms in the FEFC survey and other recent studies that they need to improve their evaluation of the training they provide. Leicestershire TEC, which is inviting college bids for Development Fund cash, has committed itself to monitoring the impact of training for employers.
Euan Holt, Leicestershire TEC education development manager, believes close evaluation is one route to help bridge the college-employer gap.
"If colleges can extend the attention they give to measuring student satisfaction to include employers there is better chance of mutual benefit, " he said.