Competition for training contracts needn't rule out collaboration between colleges and other providers. Ian Nash discovers a case in point.
The faces of the refugees are rapt with concentration: "We'll learn your language, whatever it takes," they seem to say.
"And they will," insists Andy, their tutor.
Andy runs the foundation-level English class. After two days a week for 14 weeks his students have a grasp of the language that any college lecturer would envy in a class.
International crises from Serbia to Somalia have brought them to these classes in south-west London, where there is a permanent waiting list.
One floor above, there is a similar story to be told in the IT suite, where mixed-ability groups from home and overseas are studying for diplomas that will help them get jobs in industry. Many will also go on to higher education.
But this is not a college. Or is it? This huge prefabricated building in a Lambeth industrial park is a labyrinth of classes and workshops.
Students are assessed against rigorous Learning and Skills Council controls and the place has tough targets for students and staff alike.
TBG Learning calls itself a "work-based learning provider and workforce development centre". A not-for-profit outfit, it has 11 learning centres that spread from the South-east to Derbyshire. It has 360 staff, and last year 45,000 people enrolled on its courses.
TBG has a symbiotic relationship with Lambeth college via collaborative work or franchising that has grown over the past decade.
One-fifth of the college's 20,000 enrolments are based at TBG. So students are part of Lambeth college, though they may never cross its doorstep. Some do go on to the college, or even university in some cases.
Managing director Martin Dunford sees distinct benefits in the organisation's status.
"In the truest sense we are widening participation. Were it not for centres like ours, many of these learners would not go to college. Many choose to stay with us throughout - and that is an important option."
Most learners are on pre-level 2 (GCSE) and basic skills programmes. They include perpetual school truants, ex-offenders and young adults fresh out of care homes who are short on support. Overseas students often associate "institutions" with oppression, so they benefit from the non-threatening environment.
Mr Dunford says: "Lambeth college is our major client, and there are contracts for learndirect and Entry to Employment (E2E)."
E2E, funded by the Learning and Skills Council, trains some 30,000 underachieving young people in a range of subjects, including motor mechanics, childcare, IT, engineering, basic skills and citizenship.
TBG's success rates exceed 90 per cent and have recently attracted top-ranking visitors, including the adult skills minister Ivan Lewis and LSC chief Mark Haysom, As managing director, Mr Dunford has been a zealot of college collaboration for more than 10 years. He has recently lobbied politicians as chairman of the Association of Learning Providers (ALP).
But does this contradict the ALP, which is calling for work-based learning to be an open market which gives its member firms direct access to contracts in competition with colleges?
Current rules require the 2,000 work-based learning providers to tender for much of the work through colleges. In that case, wouldn't an open market destroy TBG's relationship with Lambeth?
"Not in the least," says Mr Dunford. "We are at such a scale that we should be able to contract directly with the LSC. But that doesn't mean we would abandon Lambeth."
Collaboration built on franchising was endorsed in 2000 by then Education Secretary David Blunkett. He said colleges had squeezed out "inappropriate" franchising in response to his concerns, and added: "We do not want to bar the sort of collaborative provision which has drawn good inspection reports in recent years."
Another endorsement came in May this year from Adrian Perry, former principal of Lambeth college. The LSC had issued a statement to limit the amount colleges should spend on franchising to 5 per cent of their budgets.
But in a note of rebuke to the LSC, Mr Perry said: "There were abuses of the old franchise system - indeed, I was one of those who attacked it most fiercely - but I thought we had sorted this out."
In fact, under his leadership the proportion of Lambeth's budget spent on franchising reached 15 per cent.
Sue Gidman, TBG's director of human resources, says: "For these youngsters, to get a job and keep it for a few months is a real success."
Abi Osho, regional manager of TBG, says: "Here, they meet supportive friends and gain the soft skills for survival. It takes time and patience to help them to gain some self-esteem."
For Ms Osho, the students' choice of a college or work-based environment is essential - and Lambeth and TBG have got it about right.