British colleges need to revolutionise the way they work with their communities in a bid to catch up with their overseas counterparts, a leading figure in FE has warned.
Mark Ravenhall, director of operations at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace), said FE colleges must realise they are more than just "service providers" and need to establish themselves at the heart of the communities they serve.
The warning came as Niace, the Association of Colleges (AoC) and the 157 Group of colleges launched a joint inquiry into the role that colleges play in the community.
The inquiry will focus on examples of good practice from other countries, including models pioneered in the US, Canada and Australia, before drawing up a strategic framework to encourage the institutions to cultivate closer relationships with the local population.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford will chair the inquiry; she was nominated for the role by skills minister John Hayes. The inquiry will focus on areas including the role of local enterprise partnerships, co-operation with local authorities and strategic partners, supporting offenders and how colleges can collaborate to offer higher level skills.
"FE colleges are the institutional backbone for adult learning for their communities," Mr Ravenhall said. "To do that effectively, they have to work with the local community.
"As a result of all the changes in the FE sector, we think this is the right time to re-examine the role of the college, working alongside learners and employers to improve the offer for adult learners.
"It's not just about delivering learning in colleges, it's about training other people to go out and deliver learning in their communities."
Mr Ravenhall said research carried out by the AoC and the 157 Group found that in the US "colleges and their communities work together, and they are more effective in doing it".
"We need to realise colleges are not just service providers," he added. "The here and now presents huge challenges to colleges but also considerable opportunities. These include new changes across the policy landscape and in particular how the role of local government is shifting, the ageing population and how the rising needs of the older workforce can be met, the needs of employers in an adapting economy, in particular to make up for the retirement of the baby boomers. And the twin tensions of the skills agenda and social inclusion."
The inquiry follows an earlier AoC report on colleges' community engagement published last year.
Joy Mercer, the AoC's director of education policy, said: "Colleges are the natural centre for learning in their communities. But the landscape is changing. Funding is an issue and there are changing relationships driving local agendas.
"AoC sees this as an excellent opportunity under Baroness Sharp's leadership to explain, develop and enhance the role of colleges as responsive partners in their local communities."
Lynne Sedgmore, executive director of the 157 Group, said: "This inquiry is an important and powerful tool in helping to improve, shape and strengthen collaboration between colleges and their communities."
The inquiry will publish its final report in autumn 2011.