English employers who provide training could soon have their qualifications recognised. Will Scotland follow? Steve Hook reports.
New freedom to create industry-specific qualifications south of the border will make further education more responsive to the needs of employers, according to college leaders there.
They claim the "McQualification" revolution - touted as a chance for employers to take charge of their own training - will be a boon for colleges rather than a threat.
Maggie Scott, director of Learning and Quality at the Association of Colleges in England, said this week's announcement by John Denham, the Secretary for Innovation, Universities and Skills at Westminster, also heralds a new era of autonomy for colleges which will work closely with employers to create the new awards.
She was commenting after Mr Denham announced that staff at McDonald's will gain a Level 3 qualification - the equivalent of A-levels - in running burger restaurants as the firm becomes one of a number of big-name companies to have their qualifications recognised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.
But Sue Pinder, convenor of the principals' forum of the Association of Scotland's Colleges, who is principal of James Watt College, said: "Scotland's Colleges play an important role in already helping to deliver industry-specific qualifications.
"We have followed with interest news from England that McDonald's, Flybe and Network Rail have been given awarding body status by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. Clearly, all qualifications have to reflect the skills and competencies employers and employees need and, by offering high-quality qualifications from SQA, City and Guilds and others, Scotland's College's do just that."
In his announcement, however, Mr Denham stated: "It is right that we recognise and accredit employers who have shown a commitment to training and developing their staff. This is an important step towards ending the old divisions between company training schemes and national qualifications, something that will benefit employees, employers and the whole country."
While his comments gave rise to a tide of headlines about "McQualifications" and a new "Burgerlaurate", the AoC says the reality is that most firms will call on the expertise of lecturers and college managers to make the policy work.
New qualifications, which can take up to 18 months to create, could be brought into being in five weeks, as colleges are given the power to meet employers' needs on demand.
While McDonald's has a large in-house training operation, the AoC says the consequences across the business world will be that employers, especially smaller firms, will work increasingly closely with colleges to create the new qualifications in partnership.
Sector Skills Councils, which represent different industry sectors in workforce development and operate across the UK, will have a role in creating the courses, or units of learning. Colleges can work with individual employers or create general qualifications designed to meet the needs of their region.
The skills councils will be able to predict new skills requirements using their knowledge of the workplace processes required when new products and services, currently in the research and development phase, are introduced.
Ms Scott said: "It can involve everything from accrediting existing training to creating provision which meets a niche market. It could be as little as one unit of learning. It is also about branding and whose name is on the qualification - which is open for discussion between colleges and the employers."
The AoC has repeatedly told ministers that colleges are frustrated by the machinations of traditional qualifications frameworks, involving thousands of awarding bodies.
David Fairhurst, senior vice-president and chief people officer at McDonald's, said the move marked "an important and exciting step.
"As a progressive employer, we are committed to taking a leadership position on training and skills. We want to ensure that our approach to recruitment, training, and development continues to create real opportunities for social mobility."