The leaders of Scottish further education heard some depressing messages at their annual get-together this year (page 26). But the messages were also rather mixed, so if the gloom did not cast a pall over the proceedings the frustration would have got to them soon enough. The research carried out by Messrs Neil and Mullin was certainly not one to bring a smile to many faces. The key word in their report, however, was "perceptions". Is it the actuality of the service the colleges offer which is wanting, however, or employers' awareness?
No doubt there is a mixture of both but, as one college principal was heard to remark, colleges often find the difficulty lies in getting businesses to articulate their demands rather than a failure of the colleges to meet those demands. There is just a hint of chickens and eggs in these perennial claims and counter-claims. It may be that, as Rae Angus of Aberdeen College pointed out, that colleges will simply continue to operate largely in the public education system, their private counterparts will largely carry on satisfying the development needs of businesses, and both will just occasionally poach from each other's territories.
The NeilMullin research certainly confirms that there is plenty of business waiting to be poached. But are the colleges to be perceived as failing because they cannot provide consultancies or highly customised training to individual employers? Are they failing when the market perception, according to the report, is that "FE college costs are regarded as being more competitive and provide better value for money"? That would be judged a success on anybody else's terms.
The reason why all this is on the agenda is perhaps more interesting than the fact that it is. The combination of new technologies, the uncomfortable position of FE colleges sitting astride public education and the market-place, and the oft-peculiar workings of the Scottish Office's funding formula all point to serious pressures on the colleges, which has helped to boost the prospect of mergers.
The key point, as Greg Bourne of BP pointed out, is that people can dip in and out of training electronically. But, as Mr Bourne also underlined, large companies are increasingly subcontracting work and no longer assume they are repositories of every kind of wisdom. There are therefore opportunities as well as problems for the colleges: the question may increasingly be whether spreading jam over 46 of them allows these opportunities to be captured.
The NeilMullin research certainly points to the need for closer collaboration between the two "perceptions". That may not require much more effort on the part of colleges than putting themselves on the St Andrews University database, which records all the research being carried out anywhere in the United Kingdom. Not one Scottish FE college has logged on, according to Mr Neil.