After talks with the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, Stourbridge College in landlocked Dudley could soon be running courses to help former naval personnel resettle into civilian life. As part of the same drive to provide customised courses for employers, the college is also developing programmes for insurance advisers, not just in the Dudley area but further afield as well.
According to principal David Toeman, both these developments would have been out of the question before incorporation. Independence has also allowed the college to hold on to programme areas it was previously at risk of losing to other colleges.
In engineering, a switch from day-release to full-time courses has led to rapid growth over the past three years, while in construction the decision to hold on to staff and facilities has paid off, with enrolments picking up after declining during the recession.
But though the college is now able to take these decisions in its own long-term interests, Mr Toeman describes the impact of incorporation on mainstream curriculum areas as marginal. "The key difference is in our ability to engage in commercial activities in markets that would not have been open to us before incorporation," he says.
Support for the view that incorporation is not leading to a sudden expansion of some mainstream programme areas at the expense of others comes from a Further Education Funding Council analysis of college strategic plans. This shows that all the main programme areas are likely to grow between 1993-94 and 1996-97, when the FE sector is expected to reach the Government's target for an overall expansion of 25 per cent. While some areas are growing faster than others, the council does not expect the distribution of enrolments between different programme areas to change much over the next couple of years.
Surveys which the FEFC's regional offices are now publishing paint a similar picture of growth across the curriculum, with the colleges planning to introduce new programme areas usually outnumbering those intending to drop programmes.
Where colleges do have plans to withdraw provision, neighbouring colleges are usually able to offer similar programmes. In the south-west region, for example, two colleges are to stop courses in plumbing and trowel trades, but students will still be able to take these subjects, either as modules on combined construction programmes or as separate courses at other colleges. The big growth areas in the South-west are agriculture, engineering, and leisure and tourism.
While colleges are clearly responding to student preferences, they do not seem to be tailoring their provision to changing labour market needs to nearly the same extent. Though banks and other major white collar employers are now laying off staff with the same abandon that manufacturing companies were showing a few years ago, the growth in business studies provision shows no sign of slowing down. Nationally, colleges expect an extra 20,000 full-time students and 83,000 part-timers to sign on for business studies courses over the next two years.
Across the country, the fastest growing programme area is health and community care, where full-time enrolments look set to rise by 32 per cent and part-time enrolments by 36 per cent. Geoff Daniels, assistant director of education programmes at the FEFC, puts the expansion of this area down to employers' recognition of the need to train staff to common standards, especially NVQ standards. There is also some evidence that job opportunities with health service providers and local authority social services departments are on the increase. But accurate labour market information to help colleges plan their provision is thin on the ground.
"We would wish the pattern of provision that is offered by colleges clearly to respond to labour market needs," says Geoff Daniels. "But to do that, they have got to have better data than we think currently exists."
In a move to solve this problem, the FEFC is about to start work with the Employment Department on a medium-term analysis of the labour market. The results will probably be out in the autumn and should help the council promote the kind of provision that employers are looking for.
The council is not, however, trying to influence the pattern of provision through its new funding formula - though this could always change in the future. Stressing the formula came after lengthy consultation with the FE sector, Geoff Daniels says: "At the moment there is no evidence that the funding methodology is advantaging or disadvantaging any particular programme areas as against others. The tariff is designed to be neutral."
Local authority policies on discretionary awards to students are probably having a greater impact on the programme areas colleges are able to offer than the FEFC's funding regime. Full-time courses in agriculture, which tend to be residential, are especially hard hit by the difficulty many potential students are having in getting maintenance support.
This, along with local authority transport policies, is a particular cause for concern in the FEFC's eastern region, where there is no actual or planned new provision in agriculture.
Where colleges are seeing growth in particular programme areas, it is difficult to disentangle the various forces at work. At Canterbury College, for instance, principal Susan Pember attributes the growth in leisure and tourism, sports management, information technology, construction crafts and other areas partly to the close links the college has developed with local employers. These links have clearly helped the college provide programmes that meet local labour market needs. But on their own they cannot account for the growth of most programme areas, or an overall growth rate of 33 per cent.
As Susan Pember says: "We've flourished in the last three years. It may be because we were incorporated or it may be because...the staff are brilliant. "