LECTURERS are out of touch with the latest workplace practice in their field because colleges fail to give them the necessary time off, the biggest-ever study of skills in FE has revealed.
The findings have alarmed Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which carried out the study. "We are talking here about the very skills Gordon Brown wants to ensure that students gain a sense of enterprise," he told FE Focus.
When the Chancellor unveiled new measures to improve Britain's competitiveness this week, he put particular stress on the need for colleges to work closely with industry, and to equip staff with up-to-date skills. "We want ... every college student to be made aware of the opportunities in business, and to start a business. And every teacher to be able to communicate the virtues and potential of business and enterprise," Mr Brown said.
But the LSDA research shows that pressures on colleges to cut costs and increase individual workloads have eliminated "slack" periods when staff could be freed to upgrade their skills. Every vocational subject is affected, from business to health care, and from agriculture to the performing arts.
The survey found that most colleges had staff development policies on paper, but few put them into practice. Only one in four lecturers (27 per cent) had ever benefited from placements in or secondments to industry.
Lecturers were surveyed at 108 colleges, a quarter of all the ones in England and Wales. A majority of those questioned said they needed commercial experience to keep up to date. Many do it by "freelancing or working part-time" after hours and at weekends.
"Without this constant direct association with their vocational area, many consider that their knowledge and skills would be out of date intwo to three years," a report based on the survey says.
Other lecturers try to keep in touch by reading and research. This was largely inadequate or inappropriate. "Few lecturers have had recent workplace experience and many have not been employed directly in their industry for between five and 15 years."
The agency calls for action, including making "minimum standards of recent experience as a requirement for all" a condition for grants. It wants strategic plans in all colleges to increase and update skills. There should be more opportunities for "real work" experience and bursaries to promote industry placements.
The survey points to another time bomb in low salaries and an ageing workforce. Three quarters of the workforce are between 36 and 55. The report warns of a groundswell of retirements within five years, at the same time as private sector salaries tempt the possible younger intake.
Mr Hughes said: "Securing relevant work experience for all vocational teaching staff is a top priority."
The changes to the government departments and formation of the Department for Education and Skills and Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would add to these pressures, he warned.
"Colleges need to take a multi-agency approach in tune with the world of work if they are to thrive," Mr Hughes said. The New Deal and work-based adult routes were now under the "employment" unit in the DWP. Learning and skills councils were with the DFES. Regional Development Agencies and the regionally-based Small Business Service would be with the Department of Trade and Industry.
"The new government agenda has colleges as supporters of small and medium enterprises, local enterprises and economic regeneration, in addition to the traditional areas of vocational education and training. This won't come about unless staff are fully in touch with the latest developments," Mr Hughes said.