Many colleges are keen to exploit their growing expertise in computer-based education and training by winning contracts in the wider public and private sectors. But too many are allowing such cash-raising initiatives to slip through their fingers because lecturing and support staff lack the technological know-how to cope with the new information technologies.
Even in some colleges with increasingly sophisticated learning resource centres, control of the technology and support for students and others using these rooms as drop-in centres is in the hands of an elite minority. These staff often lack the management skills or seniority to influence wider developments.
About one in 10 managers said they would go for contracts outside - to expand the college's influence and income - when their staff were sufficiently computer literate. This view was often expressed in reply to a TES survey question on spending and the impact of information technology on FE and sixth-form colleges. And yet, in response to a separate question on college priorities, only a third of principals and IT co-ordinators spelled out clearly a programme of investments in even moderate in-service IT training for all staff.
There was no lack of general awareness of the need as 93 per cent of those questioned spoke of "staffing implications", and well over two-thirds spoke of the need for good in-service training. But, in practice, only just over one-third described open door policies where staff were not only as free as students to use learning resource centres at any hour but were offered a supportive programme of training.
About one-third (35 per cent) said facilities were available for all, but these managers seemed to think that awareness would arise through some sort of osmosis, by their just being in the vicinity of the computer. There is, however, plenty of evidence outside the scope of the TES survey to show that staff who lack competence are most unlikely to volunteer themselves for spells in a resource centre, in the full intimidating view of computer-literate students.
The co-ordinator of one London college, where there is an active programme of staff support, said: "The colleges which succeed will be those who timetable regular training sessions for all staff. There is no substitute for that in the early stages of development." That college has not only won a number of lucrative industrial contracts but is also cashing in on European-funded projects where an estimated Pounds 1 billion is up for grabs.
A small but disturbingly significant minority of managers questioned spoke of - in the words of one principal - a new "underclass" of computer-illiterate students who would have all the problems of the current illiterate and innumerate population, only worse. This group would prove untrainable for the brave new world of the 21st century.
But there was a more pressing threat to computer-illiterate staff. Several college principals warned that when the crunch comes, with the likelihood of large-scale redundancies in a year to 18 months, those lacking IT skills would be the first to go.
Just under a quarter of colleges (23 per cent) could not even offer the hope of skills by osmosis. They all saw in-service training as vital, but in IT it was either not seen as a priority or else it was viewed as something which would have to wait because of constraints on budgets. Sixth-form colleges were disproportionately represented within this group.
One co-ordinator said: "It is coming to the point where staff will have to have IT training. They will need a lot of support." But that college had no wide-ranging strategic plan and was only now drawing up a list of priorities. Staff resistance was a factor in the failure to carry out retraining programmes.
The gulf between literate and illiterate was also to do with the subjects taught; even the most advanced and progressive of colleges testifies to this. One principal of a college in the catchment area of the defence industry said: "We do not have many problems here, given the local industry; we have had to keep up, particularly in engineering."
The problems were in the service industry areas - retailing, public services, social work - which were all well behind. The state of IT training in many colleges reflected the state of training in the relevant industries. "Many of the service industries are behind and that, I think, is reflected in the attitudes among staff in colleges," he said. The idea of staff sharing "client" status with students is still new to many college managers. While some rightly blame staff, it is clear from the survey that many managers have the wrong attitude.
The IT co-ordinator of a large Surrey college said: "If industry is lagging behind, then it is up to us to take the lead."
He said this while admitting that he had an eye to the lucrative contracts. "If we do not do it then the big contracts will go to the private training providers, through the Training and Enterprise Councils." Here, smaller colleges will always be disadvantaged. To win such contracts, colleges must invest in state-of-the-art, industry-standard machines.
A recent Research Machines survey of 120 colleges and universities showed there was no lack of investment, with substantial budgets last year being spent on new or upgraded equipment.
The TES survey suggests that this may have risen to 7 or even 8 per cent of the budget in some of the larger colleges.