A group that unites colleges and entrepreneurs, and attempts to make education more relevant to working life, has criticised the handover of #163;250 million of skills funding to employers.
Gazelle - named after business jargon for lean start-up companies - argues that the educational aims of the initiative are threatened by the dominance of big business.
The warning came in Enterprising Futures, the organisation's first report, which argued that to properly prepare students for their future careers, the skills system should not be overly focused on the immediate needs of employers.
Under the government's Employer Ownership of Skills pilot, any business has until April to bid for a share of the #163;250 million funding over two years. Bidders will have to demonstrate how they are increasing employability and the development of the workforce, as well as how they can bring employers who are not currently training into the skills system.
"An employer-owned system will inevitably be focused on the current and particular requirements of 'big business' interests," the report said. "Those interests may not be the same as those of enterprising SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) and sole traders (who account for most private-sector employment), and certainly will not align with the lifetime interests of young people and adults moving through different modes and sectors of employment through their working lives."
Gazelle founder and principal of North Hertfordshire College, Fintan Donohue, said members of the group were contributing to the employer ownership pilot to try to safeguard the interests of smaller businesses and the broader needs of students.
"We believe the Employer Ownership of Skills is in danger of being dominated by large interests," he said. "This report says that students and colleges and the 1 million unemployed young people, if they're going to find a route through that, they will need it to be much more flexible and agile."
Gazelle began as a collection of five colleges and some supportive entrepreneurs, but now has 17 member colleges, each of which has contributed #163;30,000 of development money. It aims to reshape further education to allow students to run genuine, commercial businesses and, ultimately, to receive credit towards their vocational qualifications for building teams, making business plans and creating a company.
In the meantime, it is working within the existing qualifications framework to give students real commercial experience. At North Hertfordshire College, students run a commercial gym; at City College Norwich, they have a record label.
When students joined Sir Richard Branson at the Global Entrepreneurship Congress 2012 in Liverpool for a 45-minute question-and-answer session this week, the billionaire promised #163;200 in start-up funding to get one student into business selling cheesecake on a weekend stall.
Gazelle's report argues that the global economy requires a new type of education. It uses management consultants' jargon - T-shaped people, for example - and takes as settled some economic questions that are hotly contested.
"A web designer or market analyst in Reading is as likely to be competing for work with peers in Bangalore as in Basingstoke," the report said, adding that Thomas L. Friedman's thesis of level global competition in The World is Flat was "well-established". Others, however, have pointed out that global inequality is increasing, and that economic growth is happening most in big, diverse cities: the playing field still has many bumps.
But at its heart, the report is a plea for the FE system to fulfil the frequent promises of becoming "learner-centred", equipping students with lifelong skills. What is new is its claim that learning how to run a business is the best preparation for that.