Are partnerships between industry and colleges strong enough for further education to deliver skills and training in the new post-16 world after next April?
According to the Confederation for British Industry, the picture of relationships between the sector and employers is a mixed one. The Confederation for British Industry says some colleges are drawing on a wealth of experience and historic links with industry, while others are less well prepared. Part of the confederation's latest employment trends survey included questions about employers' satisfaction with training from public and private providers. Sixty-two per cent of employers rated private training providers as good or excellent, while only 35 per cent rated FE provision in the same class.
"We recognise that probably has to do with responsiveness to business needs - that private training providers are perhaps working to a narrower brief," says Anne Lindsay, policy adviser for the confederation's learning and skills group.
"But it does indicate that there is room for greater responsiveness. Within the same survey, 43 per cent of employers did have links with FE colleges, so that reflects the general message that some people are doing things very well."
But while FE is expected to rise to the challenge of the new skills agenda, is industry doing enough? The Further Education Development Agency has researched education-business relationships and concluded that, while there are many real partnerships, there are few examples of equal partners sharing a common destiny. They are more likely to be relationships in which the college is the supplier.
One study found that many lcturers maintain links with industry that relate to their subject area, thus keeping them up to date. But placements from industry into education are less common. The involvement of business in education can bring significant mutual benefits, says FEDA.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are also seen as difficult to reach, while many do not think of colleges as a natural source of training and support.
According to FEDA, colleges need to address this image problem with personal contact, a flexible approach and a better rate of response to small firms' training needs.
Maria H ughes, the agency's development adviser, says the existing funding regime has prompted colleges to look first at what they have and try to make it fit the needs of business, whereas the relationship ought to be much more collaborative.
"We're keen on thinking in terms of learning solutions, particularly for small firms. It may often not be training that they need - it may be advice, consultancy, or they may need to network."
Another hurdle is that even, where a college has a dedicated business unit that speaks the language of industry, the rest of the college will still be catering for individual students rather than corporate needs.
"Some colleges are geared up, so they're focused on industry and employment. Others are very focused on their 16 to 19-year-olds. You've got to ask 'Where's the growth?' The growth is in workforce development."
Doug Boynton, principal of Telford College of Arts amp; Technology, says colleges must improve customer care. "I believe the model is simple. We have to believe we are a service industry. What you don't do is, come September, wait there and if nobody wants your services sit there thinking it's their fault. Invariably it isn't - it's your fault - you're offering the wrong things."