Relations between further education colleges and training and enterprise councils got off to a rocky start when the employer-led bodies were set up four years ago. But, according to the body representing TECs, closer co-operation between the two sectors at national level is now leading to improved relationships at all levels.
Chris Humphries, director of policy and strategy at the TEC National Council sees the outstanding difficulties as "glitches" rather than fundamental problems, and says: "What we have got to do is continue to work to ensure that there is a better understanding of each other's interests and a recognition that there is more to be gained from co-operation than confrontation".
A survey of colleges carried out over the summer by the Association for Colleges confirms that things are looking up as far as TEC-college relationships are concerned. Over three quarters of the 160 colleges responding to the survey said that relationships were generally good. But the survey also uncovered evidence to back widely publicised claims that TECs are acting as training providers in direct competition with colleges. Around 30 of the colleges surveyed expressed concern about TEC involvement in direct provision, defined as "training or education leading to certification".
Though Mr Humphries says he knows of no TECs actually setting up training organisations and running courses, he does concede that some colleges are losing their role as managing agents for Youth Training programmes as cash-strapped TECs look for ways of cutting costs. Some TECs are either training their own staff to act as managing agents or transferring the role to local employers, and this has caused tensions between colleges and TECs in some areas.
Mr Humphries also recognises that colleges may be worried about TECs contracting with a variety of private as well as public sector training providers, but says: "That is what a free market is all about and if there is an issue there, I don't think it is one that is properly characterised as warfare between TECs and colleges".
But the market for publicly funded work-related education is not entirely free. As purchasers of education and training, TECs are forbidden from running courses - except with the express permission of the Department of Employment, usually given only in cases of clear market failure. On the other hand, there is nothing to stop further education colleges from sub-contracting courses to private or voluntary sector providers. Some TECs see this as colleges trespassing on their turf.
Like the on-going row about TECs acting as training providers, the tensions caused by colleges acting as purchasers as well as providers of work-related education reflects a lack of clarity about the respective roles of the two types of organisation. However, Geoff Hall, head of policy at the FEFC, believes that new arrangements to promote closer co-operation between the FEFC, the TECs and FE colleges will help clarify these roles.
The arrangements flow from the Government's White Paper, Competitiveness: Helping Business to Win, and include a revised procedure for TECs to approve strategic plans drawn up by colleges. Though similar to the process colleges used to go through to secure TEC funding for work-related further education, there are some significant differences.
"We've got rid of the previous arrangement where the TECs were responsible for work-related FE money and in theory had the right to say yes or no to a college plan and withhold funding if they didn't like it," Geoff Hall explains. "I think that led to difficulties and it wasn't felt to be a natural relationship.
"But what TECs will now have an opportunity to do is look across their area, look across sub-regions and seek to influence the council if they think there are gaps in provision. The dialogue which we think will now take place between TECs and colleges will be much more a dialogue of equals understanding each other's roles."
Under the new arrangements, outlined in a recent FEFC circular and due to operate fully from 1995, TECs will be asked to let the council know if any college strategic plan fails to meet local labour market needs. The council will then takes comments from the TECs into account when allocating funds to colleges. The TECs, for their part, have agreed to provide colleges with their assessments of local labour market needs. In the words of the FEFC circular: "The procedure is intended to develop effective consultation between colleges and TECs, so that TECs can be confident that colleges are addressing the principal skills needs in an area and colleges can be reassured that they have the support of those speaking on behalf of employers".
Information from plans developed by individual colleges and approved by TECs will also be aggregated and sent to new sub-regional groupings of the FEFC. These groupings will then advise the council's regional committees on whether further education in a sub-region is meeting local needs.
Another of the tasks of the subregional groupings will be to look at bids for money from the new Pounds 20 million "competitiveness fund" for the high-tech capital projects.
The grouping will consider strategic plans across a wide area and compare them with TEC assessments of labour market needs in the area to identify gaps in provision.
Geoff Hall gives the example of training in optic fibre cabling maintenance. This is highly specialised and expensive training which an individual college is unlikely to be able to afford but which a consortium of colleges, aided by the competitiveness fund, could provide.
Like other strands in the arrangements flowing from the White Paper, the competitiveness fund is - despite its name - intended to promote closer co-operation between TECs and colleges. This is also the aim of a guide to strategic planning and TEC-college relationships that the FEFC plans to publish in the new year. Developed by a joint TEC-FEFC group, this document will provide examples of good practice, including cases where TECs have consulted colleges about their own strategic plans and where the two sectors have jointly funded new training ventures.
It remains to be seen whether the guide will succeed in dispelling the alarm caused in some quarters by the White Paper's proposed new regime.
Carol Burgess, principal of Westminster College, appears to be speaking for many in further education when she says: "I think the sector as a whole has been rather taken aback that TECs, unlike the FEFC itself, would actually have to 'approve' our plans".
Mrs Burgess believes it is in the interests of both colleges and TECs to co-operate in meeting local labour market needs and says her own college is used to discussing its strategic plan with AZTEC, the local TEC. But she points out that when colleges were set up as charitable corporations, their governors were given the task of approving plans drawn up by managers.
Who, she asks, would have the final say in the admittedly unlikely event of a TEC turning down a plan already approved by a corporation?
"It will be interesting to see what happens but I think many colleges are worried that perhaps more power is being given to the TECs than they would welcome".