"There is no reliable data," said Professor John Woolhouse, director of the Centre for Education and Industry at the University of Warwick. "The bigger problem is that the majority of the contribution business makes is help in kind. Most of it happens in work experience, providing placements for teachers, developing curriculum materials, giving careers guidance and the like. In most cases, therefore, the biggest part of any contribution is not recorded. They do not cost staff time, nor do they wish to - they absorb it. Many firms do contribute, but the largest volume of effort cannot be measured infinancial terms."
One of the biggest schemes has just finished. BP spent #163;3 million over five years on Aiming for a College Education (ACE) designed to do what it says. The company paid for computer-assisted learning materials to be developed, for videos to be made and for student-tutoring schemes to be established. The company also organised a system for volunteer students from higher education to work as assistants in schools to provide positive role models for pupils.
BP's commitment to education is an important part of its community relations. The company thinks the project has encouraged teachers and lecturers to be entrepreneurial. According to the summary of the project: "Encouragement to educational institutions to seek other employer involvement has helped our education partners become effective at seeking out external funding and 'in-kind' support."
At the Department of Trade and Industry, there is an education and training sector group that aims to maximise the profitable education and training export business won by Britain. At its last meeting the group heard that the Association of Colleges is likely to produce a database of FE expertise. There was great interest in the meeting from equipment suppliers, publishers and consultants, as well as representatives from the DTI, the Foreign Office and the British Council.
According to the DTI group, a database "could help develop the significant scope which existed for greater collaboration between the different sub-sectors of the education and training sector, as overseas customers often required goods, services and skills beyond the scope of any one sub-sector".
There is great diversity in what the colleges have to offer. At Furness College in Cumbria, given 36 hours notice, staff were able to provide a training course for a company anxious to secure a big export order. They were able to advise the company on negotiating language and cultural awareness, as well as assist with the graphics for their documentation.
Mid-Warwickshire College and East Birmingham College have collaborated with the Rover Group to produce an integrated general national vocational qualification (GNVQ) Modern Apprenticeship. They sat down with Rover and asked them precisely what its needs were, and designed the course to the customer's specifications.
Lena Stockford, principal of Mid-Warwickshire, said: "The spin-off for us is that because they are looking for training with state- of-the-art equipment, they have provided some of these resources for us. We also have staff working in the factory all the time. The partnership therefore provides space for some of the things it is not possible to do in college." Mid Warwickshire has also adapted the course to help other companies. With some of the firms the college shares a joint appointment, each side paying half the salary.
But a report from the Further Education Funding Council earlier this year said everything in the garden was not rosy: "Colleges give a lower priority to meeting the needs of employers and the requirements of the local and national economies than to meeting the preferences of individual students. "
John Brennan of the Association of Colleges meets the criticism head-on. "There has always been a tension in FE between who are the clients: the employers or the students? The employer wants skills and knowledge for employment, something specific to the situation; the student wants a marketable qualification, something more broadly-based that he or she can take to any employer. The balance has to be in favour of the student. We would argue a general case for a broad education and training that would give the student the skills needed for more than just a single company. After all, one day that student will move on."
The Confederation of British Industry is convinced of the value of education-business links but says they only work when they are of value to both parties.
In a recent survey, the CBI found that 44 per cent already had links which involved the delivery of GNVQs. Tony Webb, its director of education,said it was important for industry to be in touch with college developments, especially GNVQ, and that lecturers could take back to their classroom experience of what was actually happening in the business world.
The diversity on offer is, according to Professor Woolhouse, the strength of the system. "We have seen new frameworks, including GNVQs, key skills, national training targets, new attainment targets, better information technology, co-ordinated networks - all created or improved through education-business partnerships." So far, so good.