A new accord between colleges and training and enterprise councils has been reached, ending years of feuding between the two sides, according to a TES survey.
Both sides show signs of working hard to forge a new positive alliance, but the feeling is not unanimous. Some colleges are still unhappy with their TECs and suspicious of their role. Many resent the fact that TECs have to approve the colleges' strategic plans while colleges have no such powers over TECs. Yet other colleges welcome the role played by the TECs and have discovered real benefits.
In 1994 the then Association for Colleges examined the relationship between colleges and TECs (and local enterprise companies in Scotland). The subsequent report was a sanitised version of original findings, showing deep concern and conflicting views about how the different organisations should work together.
In 1995 the TEC National Council and the Further Education Funding Council published a joint guide to good practice in college-TEC relations. Both saw the need to promote effective collaboration between the then 457 colleges in English FE and the 81 training and enterprise councils.
That investment is paying off. David Cragg, chief executive of Birmingham TEC, said: "We have an exceptionally positive and close working relationship with our FE colleges. We are growing together and getting smarter with it."
Together, and with others, the TEC and the colleges are planning a local campaign on lifetime learning, including funding individuals who need help with fees, extending provision for upgrading skills and producing a Learner's Charter.
David Eade, principal of Barnsley College, stresses the need for a good personal relationship. "We meet regularly on a strategic and operational level. They have good research on local market needs. We work together on a local regeneration forum so there is an opportunity for us to work in a tightly-knit group to develop the borough."
But he says that his experience may not be typical. He does not see his TEC as a provider, only as a funder, and they are both keen to work with each other.
A different view comes from Jenny Shackleton, principal of Wirral Metropolitan College. She says that in some areas, relations are deteriorating "rather fast".
"Consider the stress on TECcollege relations where business link operations wish to get into the services colleges offer," she said.
"The movement of TECs into a quasi-governance role is an issue. They have a considerable pull on colleges' normal funding streams. There is a lot of dead wood in a system where provision is being transferred, closed on the one hand and opened on another. We are shutting, with regret, local outposts, and yet parallel provision is shooting up in areas where we closed down. "The cost to the public purse is unacceptable."
This is a minority view but some of the criticisms are echoed elsewhere. David Mason, principal of York College of Further and Higher Education, said relationships with TECs are reasonably good: "But I still think TECs find it difficult to work in partnerships without being the dominant partner."
He is concerned about TECs given the responsibility to approve college strategic plans and questions their knowledge about education. He says the FEFC should approve strategic plans.
This point is carried further by Keith Wymer, principal of Bilston Community College. There was nobody statutorily responsibl e for all education and training: local education authorities produce a strategic plan for economic regeneration; the college produces its plan and the TEC comments; the TEC does likewise and the college comments. "It is all duplication," Mr Wymer said. "We need a regional body to co-ordinate it all, under the Department of the environment or the Department for Education and Employment.
Planning could help Tom Jupp of City and Islington College. He says relationships are good but "TECs are now seen as the providers of youth training and adult training. We have been squeezed out of that market because they go to private training providers who are cheaper."
Patricia Twyman, principal of Bournville College, confirms the good relationship she has with her TEC. Particularly successful are the Saturday morning classes which the TEC funds at the college. Many women prefer attending on a Saturday morning rather than on a weekday evening and the TEC relationship has been invaluable. "Their human resource person has been invaluable. They check each year whether you are still happy with the same person."
Nick Lewis of Broxtowe College says relations with TECs "are not always harmonious, but they are good. I do not like them having to approve our plans, but I am content with what they do.
"The issue of TECs being providers is a distinct problem. Their role as representing employers is compromised. When they merge with the Chambers of Commerce this makes them providers, so they are in an invidious position, but this does not make me anti-TEC. "
The point is echoed by John Bolton of Blackburn College. "The major difficulty is that TECs are seen as facilitators and co-ordinators but also as direct competitors with colleges, because they provide their own schemes like Modern Apprenticeships or lifetime training.
"They advertise courses in the privileged first position in competition with other providers. Can they be accused of insider dealing? There are always conflicts. They should revert to their original role of developing initiatives and brokering new methods of co-ordination rather than doing direct provision itself. "
The Association of Colleges said relationships had settled down although there was still some distance and tension. John Brennan, director of development, said there was inequality in the relationship. Colleges should be given more influence over TECs' development and thinking.
Nevertheless, leading chief executives of TECs - including Richard Guy of Manchester, Alistair Graham of Leeds and Keith Davie of Sheffield - spoke warmly of their strong relationships with colleges.
Ann Limb, principal of Milton Keynes College, summed up: "You have to expect TECs to compete with colleges even though they do have a slight advantage. We have to get on with it and compete on quality."