Colleges should consider leaving academic education such as A-level provision to schools and other providers and instead concentrate on delivering vocational skills, according to a leading principal.
Ioan Morgan, principal of Warwickshire College, said that as public funding declined colleges had to look hard at their core provision in order to deliver courses that offered a return on investment by the state, employers or individuals.
Mr Morgan, a founder of the 157 Group of leading colleges, was a panellist at the Learning and Skills Network's (LSN) annual Big Debate on Monday. The debate, held at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, was titled "The Spending Squeeze: Who bears the cost?"
He was responding to a point raised from audience member Dame Ruth Silver, chair of the Learning and Skills Improvement Service, who said that she was uncomfortable with a narrow skills-dominated definition of further education.
Mr Morgan replied: "FE is about economic development and skills. There are other places for A-levels to be delivered."
Fellow panellist Tom Wilson, director of UnionLearn, turned the argument on its head and said that with 60 per cent of students in FE already engaged in skills-related programmes, there was a need for a broader cultural influence across the sector.
The debate reflected distinct views in the further education sector about how it should respond to the challenges posed by public funding cuts.
Asked about the Government's proposals to give colleges greater freedom to respond as businesses to the financial challenge, Mr Wilson said that his profound view was that FE exists as part of the public sector.
Later, in response to a question from Alan Tuckett, director of adult learning body Niace, about how to protect opportunities for learners when public funding was falling and employers were spending less on training, Mr Wilson said that more needed to be done to make employers pay for training.
But Mr Morgan said: "We cannot go around blaming employers. Colleges must address this issue. It is about demonstrating a return on investment (in FE). We have to professionalise our offer."
In his introduction, Mr Morgan said that the biggest barriers to colleges becoming more business-like and attracting private investment were existing FE pensions, many of which are final salary schemes, and staff employment contracts. "Not until we address these will we secure an injection of funds into the sector," he said.
Mr Wilson said that rather than attack pensions and contracts, employers should be working with trade unions to resolve any issues.
The third panellist, Simon Witts, director of safety, quality and training for airline Flybe, said a lot of employers failed to understand the benefits of training their employees.
"Can we encourage more employers to put money in? Yes, if they understand what they can get out of the skills agenda," he said.
Audience member Tom Toolan, assistant principal of Lowestoft College, asked Mr Witts why rather than spending pound;24 million on creating its own training academy at Exeter Airport, Flybe had not invested the money with its partner, Exeter College.
Mr Witts said that the academy was not an attempt to bypass the college but rather created a place for partners, including Exeter College, to come together to provide education and training for an employer such as Flybe and the airline industry.
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