THE extent of business input into further education courses emerged as a key theme during the latest sitting of the Scottish Parliament's Enterprise and Lifelong Committee last week.
Under close questioning from MSPs, Richard Baker, president of the National Union of Students (Scotland), said employers were not sufficiently involved with colleges beyond turning up for boards of management meetings.
George Lyon (Lib Dem, Argyll) suggested that perhaps the funding mechanisms for colleges encouraged students to take up places on the wrong courses with no regard for their employability. Greater business involvement might improve the relevance of FE courses to the jobs market.
But Mary Middleton, president of the students' association at Inverness College, said she would be concerned if colleges started producing people for a specific demand that then disappeared with changes in the labour market.
"What would be more useful might be to be able to say to employers, here is a body of trained people who are trainable and who have shown their commitment to lifelong learning."
Ms Middleton, a mature student, said there was "a huge gap" in guidance and support for FE students. "Quite often students start a course and don't know where they are going with it," she said. A "skills for effective learning" introduction could make a major difference especially for adult returners, given the widely different ages, abilities and experiences in FE classes.
Kenryck Lloyd Jones, parliamentary affairs officer for NUS Scotland, suggested all college and university courses should have transferable skills which would be of use in the labour market.
Ms Middleton felt the best approach was to continue promoting links between businesses and schools. "People will then come in to FE with a clearer idea of what they want to get out of it," she said. But she agreed employers should visit colleges more often to meet students face to face.
The NUS delegation told MSPs the biggest barrier against women students in FE was lack of child care. They do not know until after they have applied and enrolled on a course what provision there was or whether funds would be adequate. Any money does not cover the costs of care at half-term or after hours.
Careers service representatives meanwhile challenged the funding restrictions which effectively force young Skillseekers to take courses leading to a Scottish Vocational Qualification.
Malcolm Barron, vice-president of the Institute of Careers Guidance, said some young people and employers regard other qualifications, such as the National Certificate and the Higher National CertificateDiploma, as equally valid. "To have that flexibility would be helpful," Mr Barron said.
Beth Hall, a senior careers adviser in Glenrothes, said the Fast Track programme in Fife which combines college and employer-based training had begun to introduce courses which integrated SVQs and NCs, an "exciting" development.
Mr Barron also took issue with what he saw as the "contradiction" in the Scottish Executive's policy of aiming for 20,000 modern apprentices by 2002 while at the same time encouraging more young people to stay on in education. "It's fishing in the same pool," he said.
The numbers going directly into jobs at the age of 16 had been steadily declining for 10 years and vocational training tends to take place after FE.
But Marilyn Livingstone (Lab, Kirkcaldy), a former FE lecturer, said modern apprenticeships should not be seen in isolation. Students could begin with National Certificate courses, building up to a modern apprenticeship which could then be used to exempt students from the first year of university.