Engineering a bright future

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Ross Davies on an unsung guru who believes FE and industry need to be reconnected

There's no entry for "further education" in the index to Kumar Bhattacharyya's biography, but he thinks FE could play a bigger part in everyone's life.

Professor Lord Bhattacharyya's field is manufacturing and engineering, and he sees improving competitiveness as essential to the UK's industrial and skills base. He is the director of the Warwick Manufacturing Group, an industry-focused technology school at Warwick university. He is a past member of the West Midlands regional committee of the Further Education Funding Council, and he sits on the Department for Education and Skills'

education and training exports group.

Lord Bhattacharyya says international competitiveness is what industry is about, and he sees FE as a bit-player that's capable of a far stronger role in a scenario he sets out in an introduction to the biography, Kumar Bhattacharyya: the unsung guru (Andrew Lorenz, Random House Business Books).

"While Britain has changed enormously, our competitors have also changed and furthermore there has been an unprecedented rate at which the manufacturing industries have grown in the emerging economies such as China, India and Eastern Europe," he writes.

"All manufacturing industries have to be knowledge-based to be competitive, but the perception that emerging economies are not likely to be knowledge-based is a myth."

WMG is a partner in education and training centres in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Africa and India. The latest, in China, is to be an "automotive academy" for up to 5,000 students.

He adds: "Everything we do is engineered, and if we can capture the imagination of youngsters and excite them by modernising the way we teach and attract them, thereby unleashing their innovative power on manufacturing industry, well, I think we can win." But, he adds in conversation (if not in the biography), that FE needs re-engineering if it is to make its full potential contribution to increasing competitiveness.

"Let me give you an example," he says. "We at WMG had several engineering and automotive companies who wanted to take on some school-leavers, pay for them to do two years' FE, and if the youngsters did well, pay for them to proceed to a degree course.

"We were asked to find and validate a suitable FE college, but in the whole of Birmingham, hub of the UK engineering industry, we could find not one FE college of the 12 we looked at which either had an engineering manufacturing course, or one worth sending a student on." One college workshop, he adds, "had 1914 lathes - this in the age of the computer".

In the end, WMG had to look further afield than Birmingham, and found both the technology and the trained staff who could satisfy Warwick's entry standards at Dudley college and at Solihull college.

More of the city's FE colleges have now caught up with advances in technology and skills and so can show that they could train students to be of immediate use to an employer, Lord Bhattacharyya adds, but he sees a widespread "disconnection" between FE colleges and employers, which is a national, not a regional phenomenon. But there's still time for FE colleges to reconnect with employers, and vice versa.

"In part, this disconnection is the employers' own fault, because when manufacturing industry was in crisis over a failure of competitiveness a quarter of a century ago, it jettisoned the apprentice system, and with it the responsive local FE colleges geared to the needs of local industry.

"What we now have is an over-quangoised FE system in which colleges are essentially clients of the Learning and Skills Council, not industry. In theory, learning and skills councils should be up to the job but too much bureaucracy builds in inevitable leads and lags between the colleges and their customers.

"Too many young people now see a full-time FE course as either not leading to a job, or as a delay in getting out and earning some money," he says.

He applauds New Labour's attempts to incentivise employers and their workers to train at FE colleges. But he adds: "There's been no attempt to see what value for money we're getting, as measured by increased industrial competitiveness, and we still don't produce enough useful craftsmen and women such as plumbers or builders, and there's still too much shoddy workmanship.

"In the past, government was more interested in getting people into FE colleges and off the unemployment register, than in what use the courses were, although today quality and content are now big issues," he says.

So how might FE colleges and employers "reconnect"? "Government should benchmark firms' investment in training - if a firm's paying for FE courses, it'll take more interest in quality."

As for the colleges, he argues, many need to shake up their governing councils, too many of whose industry members are ornamental rather than useful. "I'd also like to see FE colleges awarding scholarships to school-leavers," he says.

Finally, Lord Bhattacharyya adds, it's a case of physician, heal thyself.

"FE colleges must modernise, and train or retrain staff so they are up to speed with the latest technology," he warns.

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