The Government's economic development arm for lowland Scotland decided to act, following the findings of a consultants' report it commissioned along with the Association of Scottish Colleges.
The report, by Alex Neil and Roger Mullin Associates (TESS, October 18), revealed the ineffectiveness of many colleges in selling themselves to businesses, with the result that private trainers were grabbing a slice of the most lucrative contracts. The colleges were particularly slow to offer training in the 12 key strategic industries as identified by Scottish Enterprise, with the exception of engineering.
Tom Kelly, chief officer of the ASC, acknowledges the problem highlighted in the report that colleges have been so busy competing with each other that they failed to concentrate on "growing the business of FE as a whole". That is a central aim of the second phase of the project, which is being undertaken by Edinburgh-based consultants Segal Quince Wickstead Ltd at a cost of o25,000.
Alan Brazewell of SQW says the plan is to produce a strategy which will help colleges in marketing their wares to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Scottish Enterprise is anxious that colleges improve on their non-Government earnings and believes there is huge potential; the agency estimates that Scottish businesses spend more than o2 billion a year on "training-related services".
The study revealed that the 43 incorporated colleges won contracts valued at just over o14 million in 1994-95, representing four per cent of all college income that year. The report described that as "a modest performance".
Shona Cormack of Scottish Enterprise says the consultants found "scope for FE to increase its income from other sources and a willingness to do so". But the report also suggested that colleges often lacked awareness of the market-place and that businesses were similarly unaware of what colleges could offer them.
Mr Brazewell said his first step would be to assess the demand for training and consultancy and then research colleges' capability to deliver it. He would not be surprised to find SMEs demanding customised services, delivered either through distance learning, evening or weekend courses.
Some 95 per cent of the colleges claim, however, that they are already offering such tailor-made short courses and 90 per cent say they provide SVQ training involving work-based assessment. The colleges complain that smaller companies are unsophisticated at articulating their training needs, an issue which Mr Brazewell also hopes to address.
The ASC and Scottish Enterprise have already run a number of workshops since the NeilMullin study was published to explore the issues raised and open up a dialogue, in particular between the colleges and the local enterprise companies (Lecs). Mr Kelly of ASC says it is important for Lecs to recognise that colleges have a key role in developing the skills base, although the report showed their relationship was getting better.
The opportunities for colleges to develop training and become advisers on training needs do exist, Mr Kelly says. But, he conceded, there are still misconceptions in the market-place preventing colleges shaking off their image as "the local tec", offering what the consultants called "high volume, least cost type of services".
Mr Kelly added: "Until the products of colleges become established at senior levels in business, in the way university graduates are, it will be difficult to improve the traditional perceptions. It's almost a generation thing."