Do they serve those who only stand and wait?
We like to think that we make a difference to companies, helping them to flourish. John Major himself said as much at a famously grapey reception in London to coincide with incorporation of colleges in 1993. We had in our hands, he said, the future of the British economy. He meant figuratively because at the time we had our hands full of French wine. John Patten, his then education secretary, posed approvingly at his side.
Well, now less than three years on, a report has appeared which looks at how we have been doing our bit for the gross domestic product. The report is called Colleges and Employers: Responsiveness and Interaction and was funded by the Further Education Funding Council, the Employment Department (as was), and the Council for Industry and Higher Education.
Consultants tramped round six areas visiting companies, colleges and TECs, with a brief to sniff out examples of an active relationship, to categorise and evaluate them. It is perhaps a pity that so much store was set by responsiveness, and so little by its opposite, proactiveness.
Sweet peas can, I believe, detect a lighted candle at twenty miles, and turn towards it. Wonderfully responsive, and very useful no doubt. Colleges are, says the report, getting better at picking up such signals, but we all know that if we wait for an invitation, some companies will never ask, because it won't occur to them to do so. We have to do more than simper eagerly and accept occasional invitations to dance. The report is largely silent on how colleges could set agendas of our own.
The fact that the report says nothing about franchising either, may just be because franchising is so new that it all came too late for the researchers. It is a shortcoming, however, because there is evidence that franchising is both replacing more conventional forms of provision, and bringing in wholly new work.
The companies must think that it helps their business plans. So, don't look to the report to find an account of the many ways in which franchising is organised, nor for any discussion of the ethical issues involved. The other thing missing is any true breakthrough on stimulating commercial and industrial activity. There are no bumper wheezes described here.
It may be that there aren't any to be had, apart from a combination of the sort of research, design and delivery methods which we have all been using for years. Or it may be, of course, that the colleges and companies in the survey kept quiet about the creative moments of inspiration.
If that sounds implausible about a sector which is usually pretty quick to grab its trumpet and blow hard, put it down to fear of competition. Nobody feels comfortable in colleges unless they are firmly sitting on at least three ingenious schemes which will outwit the opposition.
So much for what's not there. There is a great deal in the report which is extremely helpful, and clearly set out. The actual work was done by the Institute for Employment Studies, and they have, among other things, devised a most useful classification system, grouped round either learner-centred activities or planning-centred arrangements. All colleges would benefit from such a logical review of their relationships with companies.
Within that framework it is interesting, if not necessarily cheering, to note the trend to use colleges for low-level training, but to keep the juicier management-training for others; to read that TECs do not rate college work highly; that repeat business from old friends is the staple of many programmes; and that price is not what counts when a company decides to use the college.
Of course there's more to college-company relations than the buying and selling of services, and the report checks out just how effective advisory committees are. Not very, it seems, and employers representatives have better things to do than sit in on aimless discussions in groups which have no executive powers, but then don't we all.
Colleges lack any systematic procedure to gather, assess and use potentially valuable information. There is a lot of such information around, from the employer governors, the rich range of informal, personal contacts, and specialist task groups. But it is not logged, cross-referenced to other data gathered from work experience placements, or fed into the policy-making function. Taken together with the poor quality of labour market information, it's no wonder that the relationship is weaker than colleges or companies would like.
You might expect that colleges with a dedicated industrial liaison unit, staffed by people with smart suits, mobile phones and customised clipboards, would do better than those which rely upon departments or teams to drum up business. Not so. It was "not possible to ascertain" whether they are any more successful.
There, of course, is a key question. How can colleges, going flat out to recruit full-time students, keep them warm, happy and with a pen in their hand while responding instantly to an option to run a short course, when the best staff would be the very ones teaching the full-time students? The most flexible contracts in the western world don't require a person to be in two places at once - or not yet.
The report, lucidly written and helpfully highlighted, leads one to the conclusion that colleges will either remain inefficient because their systems are too ad hoc, in which case the activities will always be mainly marginal, or we must start again.
Of course, the best way to organise it is in concert with the companies, perhaps starting with those whose directors sit on our governing bodies. That would need a change of attitude, probably, and practice, certainly, by the companies. Pull that one off and we might qualify for another round of drinks on Mr Major.
Michael Austin is the principal of Accrington and Rossendale College.