A BATTLE is underway for the control of pound;1.4 billion of public money spent on training and for greater influence over the enterprise policies of the Government.
The ground chosen by the main protagonists in post-school education and training is the Government's consultations - which finished last week - on the future of training and enterprise councils, with the chief challenge coming from the further education sector.
The Association of Colleges believes "a more critical analysis is needed of the quality and cost-effectiveness of TEC programmes and their inter-relationship with other training activities."
John Brennan, AOC director of policy, said: "Tecs should stick to their knitting and not meddle in education."
The AOC accuses TECs of taking an unreasonable share of the budget for training, of being wasteful and of providing poor quality. "Moreover, success rates on TEC-funded programmes leave much to be done, with only 44 per cent of leavers from work-based training for young people gaining a full qualification," says the AOC.
In its submission, the TEC national council stresses the crucial roles of the 79 councils. These include a key role providing "joined-up delivery" of the Government competitiveness, skills and social inclusion agenda. The TECs see themselves as main providers under the new regional development agencies (RDAs) and the agents for ensuring local flexibility and financial leverage and control.
The TEC submission stresses their role as a primary vehicle for involving private sector in enterprise, education and skills development. But other big training bodies have used the consultations to make a pitch for a bigger slice of TEC budgets. They include the new national training organisations, responsible for setting standards in different industrial sectors. The NTOs argue that their new role makes some of the TEC duties redundant.
The fight to win ministerial support will continue until the Government issues its strategic guidance to TECs in early December. Some councils are confident that the bodies, set up under Margaret Thatcher eight years ago to revitalise enterprise, will survive.
The battleground is new territory for most of the players - the eight English regions with RDAs plus London, where a mayor and assembly will be elected next April. London TECs are also ebullient about the future and have held meetings with a view to ensuring a strong role in the capital. But, the fact that there is considerable nervousness in the regions over the future comes through many individual TEC responses. TECs in the North-west, South-west and West Midlands are among the most positive. Some others, privately, see their future as very short-term.
Views on the future funding of the Government's regional approach vary markedly. The British Chambers of Commerce say RDAs should take over TEC funding from the start. The AOC is concerned that training-related cash should continue to be allocated nationally, preferably through the FE Funding Council.
The TECs themselves are looking to the fashionable third way, with acting chief executive Mary Lord arguing for development agencies to assume gradual control of budgets, but "be strongly involved from the start with developing, and not just approving, individual Tecs' corporate or business plans".
Political lines are clearly drawn: Conservative employment spokesman Damian Green is opposed to regional activity, claiming it will "move government away from the people".
By contrast, Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrats' spokesman, wants RDAs to produce regional Lifelong Learning Action Plans and to co-ordinate training regionally, issuing franchise licences for which TECS will have to bid.
TECs have been merging with chambers of commerce and Business Links organisation. This is expected to accelerate as Labour's push for regional development develops.
One way in which TECs seek to expand what they do for people in work is through an extension of Modern Apprenticeships, from the current 10 to 15 per cent of young people to up to 30 per cent.
The apprenticeships and Investors in People remain the two main channels in which TECS work closely with employers, and may continue to be so until government policy on workforce training and skills becomes reality. The troublesome area of Individual Learning Accounts is the key.
In training for young people, TECs continue to face strong competition from colleges.
TECs are concerned that further and higher education minister Baroness Blackstone and George Mudie, the new junior minister, are not their natural supporters.