Government reforms have set a new agenda for training which industry says will erode the independence of colleges and boost private training providers.
A new market-led approach to national vocational qualifications - reinforced by changes following the Beaumont review of the future of national vocational qualifications - will blur boundaries between colleges and training providers, forcing both to become more accountable.
The changes, which are aimed at boosting the take-up of NVQs, involve a shake-up of long-established qualifications and a rationalisation of industry training organisations and lead bodies.
The foundations for a market-led approach to NVQs have been created over the past 10 years. But a more competitive approach has come with beefed-up Modern Apprenticeships, the national traineeship to replace Youth Training later this year and a rationalisation of industry training and schools and college curriculum bodies.
Industry lead bodies, which set the standards for different occupations, are merging with their corresponding industry training organisations to create six new umbrella national training organisations. And education and training will soon get a new regulator of quality and standards when the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority merge as the Qualifications and National Curriculum Association.
The aim of the changes is to streamline NVQs and to make it easier to sell them to industry. At the sharp end, colleges and private training providers will have to fight over who has ownership of the key element to the training and enterprise council-funded NVQs - work-based training.
The broad market figures are that there are around 4,000 private training providers registered with TECs compared with around 350 colleges. Many colleges, operating increasingly in the commercial world, believe they are better able to provide work-based training than private providers.
Some have taken the franchising route, striking deals with local and even national employers to deliver a complete industry training package. Other colleges, major local employers in their own right, have set up hairdressing salons, restaurants and business support.
But industry training organisations - soon to become the new training organisations - want to see more genuine workplace training taking place.
Stephen Studd, chief executive of the Sports and Recreation Industry Training Organisation, said: "Colleges can be particularly helpful for small business to help them take on assessment and supervision. But what we don't want to see is NVQ outcomes for full-time courses."
Once the NVQ lead bodies have merged with the industry training organisations responsible for implementing them, the industry will have more clout with the funding bodies. "We want to see a proper quality-controlled framework for training to take people through the appropriate NVQ levels, " said Mr Studd.
"Modern Apprenticeships is a way of getting employers to take ownership of training. Employing apprentices gives companies more control of training, ensuring that recruits fit in with the business culture and giving them a greater understanding of the work environment. "
It also means companies can snap up young people before they drift away. David Rossington chief executive of Lincolnshire training and enterprise council, said: "Companies are finding that they have to compete on the quality of their workforce."
With around 4,000 Modern Apprentices and youth trainees in its area, Lincolnshire TEC has found the take-up has been greatest among small to medium-sized enterprises. Mr Rossington said his TEC's success is down to the strength of links with local employers. "There has got to be a balance between the numbers of employers wanting to offer the apprenticeshi ps and the numbers of young people coming forward."
The retail industry supports Mr Rossington's assertion that the mood among businesses is swinging towards Modern Apprenticeships and a more hands-on approach to training. Many of the small to medium-sized firms so keen in Lincolnshire on taking up modern apprentices have been from the retail and distribution sector.
John Wright of the Retail and Distribution Occupation Standards Council said: "The distribution industry would like to see training in the workplace. Increasingly, employers are open to providing work placement."
The figures for take-up of Modern Apprenticeships in retail and distribution show that of 3,000 registrations, 2,500 have come from small businesses. However, there is still room for the major franchising deals of the kind struck between Halton College in Cheshire and Tesco.
What appears to be emerging is a blueprint for training where colleges could be relegated to a supporting role. Managing agents for Kent TEC, Enterprise Training Maidstone backs private training providers rather than colleges which used to supply all its training in the skills areas needed by local employers - retail, motor mechanics and business administration.
ETM works hard and is paid according to outcomes and targets set by its local TEC. A high success rate among its NVQ trainees means the firm will stay in business and get its contract renewed. Executive director Eileen Bullock is not convinced that colleges are doing as good a job as the private providers. "Lecturers just don't have the financial incentive to get people through their vocational qualificatio ns, especially now they have become more work-based. Training happens more quickly and more effectively if its done in the workplace."
So how will a new generation of Modern Apprentices take to forgoing college life for the hard graft of on-the-job training? Their reaction could be more positive than you think.
Former Guildford College hairdressing student Emma Sedgeman said: "College was where I went to make friends - a social life. But when I started work, I found much of what I'd learned in college wasn't relevant - I had to start almost from the beginning. I now think I'd have been better off doing an apprenticeship."