Alan Johnson's broadside against the Confederation of British Industry at the Association of Colleges' annual conference came after it accused further education of failing to providing the workforce skills needed for the economy.
In a statement, Richard Lambert, the CBI's director general, had said: "At present, the skills system is failing to deliver value for money. Employers find much of the available publicly funded training irrelevant and individuals are not offered the support they need."
Delegates at the annual conference in Birmingham on Tuesday challenged Mr Johnson for a response to the remarks, which had caused widespread dismay among college principals. After hesitating briefly, he let rip with an outburst which prompted lengthy applause.
"I spoke to Richard Lambert and expressed my disappointment at that press release," he said. "Ever since the skills strategy was published we have been in discussions, particularly with the Trades Union Congress and the CBI. We are seeking to do what business has been saying for many years: putting business at the centre of our skills strategy.
"That press release didn't give any credit at all for any improvement that's been made. It's almost as if nothing had happened over the last nine years. An awful lot has.
"For 100 years, employers have been complaining about students.
"Employers have a very real stake in this, but this debate ought to be in a grown up way, recognising the achievements that have been made and that no party in this debate is totally blameless for the situation we are now in."
John Brennan, the chief executive of the AoC, also responded to the CBI's sideswipe, saying: "The quality of college provision is extremely strong. In 2005-06, 99 per cent of college provision was judged to be satisfactory or better, far exceeding that of private training providers."