The government has been warned that its national colleges project must not "duplicate or undermine" existing provision if it is to have a significant impact on boosting shortage skills.
Business secretary Vince Cable has announced a huge expansion of the employer-led scheme that aims to help fill higher-level skills gaps in strategically important sectors of the economy. Four new institutions were announced last month to help the UK develop world-class skills in the advanced manufacturing, digital, wind energy and creative industries. Another three have already been unveiled, specialising in high-speed rail, nuclear energy and onshore oil and gas.
The "new generation" of national colleges will cater for some 10,000 students by 2020, supported by pound;80 million of capital funding from the government to be matched by employers.
The Association of Colleges and the 157 Group of colleges both agreed that the announcement showed support for the FE college model. But although the sector broadly welcomed the news, it also warned that the new institutions must work with the existing system.
Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said that any new provision needed to add to rather than duplicate what was already in place. "We will be working with those colleges involved in the proposals and those local to the new provision to make sure the most is made out of the investment, to make sure it doesn't duplicate or undermine but reinforces, develops and expands," he said.
"We need to look at how we embed this in the FE system and how it supports an overall reform agenda. It must complement other activities rather than being seen as entirely separate. If they stand aside from the system they have the potential to burn brightly and then burn out."
Mr Doel said that more detail was needed on the next stage of development, such as what form the new colleges would take and what curriculum would be delivered.
His comments were echoed by Andy Gannon, director of policy for the 157 Group, who said the "excellent" work already taking place in many colleges to develop higher-level skills needed to be recognised alongside the new provision. "For the new colleges to survive they are going to have to be outstanding in terms of their outcomes, especially when it comes to employability," he added.
The Education and Training Foundation said it welcomed the strong focus on vocational teaching and learning in the plans. However, Jenny Williams, the ETF's director of vocational education and training, warned: "National colleges must acquire a national reputation for excellence if they are to be more than `the latest initiative'.
"Effective leadership of collaborative arrangements between providers and employers is also critical."
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) said the new wave of colleges marked an important step in the government's drive to place vocational training on a par with higher education and to end the "outdated divisions" that had held individuals and companies back.
It pledged to work towards the introduction of maintenance loans so that students from around the UK could afford to attend. It will also set aside pound;5 million for scholarships to support the strongest candidates.
A BIS spokeswoman said that national colleges would help the UK to develop world-class technical skills and address high-level skills gaps in key sectors of the economy. "The colleges will be centres of excellence with international reputations, and ultimately take students up to postgraduate level," she added.
"This is not about replacing existing colleges or training providers, but about creating new opportunities for vocational study. National colleges will only emerge in sectors where there is an evidenced skills gap in higher-level technical skills and demand from employers for such a college."