Collaboration or confrontation?
There is tension in the air in Plymouth. The squeeze is on colleges which are fighting hard to hang on both to staff and their share of the student market in the face of competition from private companies. The relationship between the two sectors has always been a mixed one.
"I suspect that like many colleges, we're feeling a sense of squeeze at the moment," reflects Ian Clark, vice-principal responsible for human resources at Plymouth FECollege. "We've lost several lecturers to schools, sixth form colleges and universities. They're all potentially moving sideways, but actually for more money.
"So we risk losing good people at one end. And in terms of private providers, we're being potentially undercut at the other because they're paying instructor-type folk where we're paying lecturers."
The college has joint ventures with a number of private providers that are working well. But there is also tension where local training companies are franchised from other colleges.
"We wouldn't deliberately go into a new market to try and stuff a private provider," says Ian Clark. "But equally, if we're involved in something and we believe it is a quality provision, we wouldn't want to see the nature of the provision reduced because of needless undercutting."
His concern, and that of many others in FE, is this: come next April with the new Learning and Skills Council and its 47 local skills councils, how level will the playing field be? And in the brave new world where learning is a product, learners are customers, and colleges are suppliers, what will be the relationships between colleges and other local players in post-16 education and training?
In July, David Melville, chief executive of the Further Education Funding Council, announced that the nation's skills needs can only be delivered "through many agencies working in partnership at local and sector level as well as at national and regional level." But he also heralded a more competitive arenalocally - one where, if you fail to deliver and respond to local skills needs, the money will go to someone else who can. "Those who are quick on their feet, those who work in a positive way, will survive and do very well," he said.
Private training organisations are busy getting organised for next April. The Association of Learning Providers (ALP) was launched in December as a national voice for an industry which numbers nearly 2,000. It sees itself playing a central role under the new regime and has been trying to woo various elements of the further education sector to come on board. Colleges in turn have mixed feelings.
The Association for College Management (ACM) was this summer debating its own place in the new post-16 landscape and deliberating over how it would respond to overtures from the Association of Learning Providers.
John Mowbray, the ACM's general secretary, said: "This would be a fundaental change in direction, stance, culture. It would be a fundamental change which I personally wouldn't endorse without membership support. Many of the members would be very anxious because they're closer than I am to these private providers. They see whether they're good or bad - whether there's quality there or not."
Quality of provision is also a central issue for Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe, and one he will be raising with the Association of Learning Providers.
"Our policy is that there should be high quality in both sectors," he said. "And what we're not in favour of is basically cheap private training undercutting quality provision in colleges.
"What that means in practice is that we will be arguing for the Fento (Further Education National Training Organisation) standards for what qualification you need to teach or train young people post-16. We would argue for those to be applied to anyone who is funded by the LSC to provide courses. That's our starting point in relation to the Association of Learning Providers."
Some people have expressed surprise at an apparent lack of stance by the Association of Colleges (AOC) over this jockeying for position by private providers. The AOC is also being courted by the learning providers' association, but has responded coolly. John Brennan, its director of development, says: "I don't think we are unduly worried about these sorts of organisations."
Work-based trainers represent around only 6 per cent of the total share of the skills-council market, he says. "Colleges start from the point where they represent over 70 per cent of the business, directly and indirectly. So I think you have got to put the thing into proportion."
He says there has to be a common set of criteria for assessing quality, so that all providers go by the same standards. These would raise implications for private providers that they haven't had to face before. "It's a normal working assumption that in schools and colleges you don't just offer a set of learning activities which are designed to produce a qualification outcome,' he says. "You surround that with a range of other facilities, like libraries, refectories, student counselling and support.
"A question which I think hasn't yet been answered is do you have the same expectations of private training providers in respect of that other package of learner support, or not? And if not, why not? If you think those things are desirable for learners, then why shouldn't they be there for all learners?
"And what criteria are the inspectorate going to deploy when they come to look at provision? Are they going to go on a like-for-like basis?" Given variable standards in the private training sector and the new national skills council's commitment to squeezing out poor provision, he believes that colleges will be in a position of strength come next April.
"Examples have been quoted to me of private training providers who want to be taken over by colleges, because they see that in this big worldprobably that's the best future for them."