How skilled are our valleys?

5th April 1996 at 01:00
In the first in a series of regional profiles Mark Whitehead looks at further education in Wales. The scarred hillsides of the South Wales valleys are testimony to the industrial revolution which sucked wealth from the ground and left the valleys impoverished.

Official statistics show that the once-thriving region is now fighting for survival. Jobs in steel and coal in Wales fell from 120,000 in 1975 to fewer than 20,000 last year. Where once coal mines peppered the landscape, now there is just one deep mine left in south Wales and one in the north.

Multinational companies, mainly from the United States, Germany and Japan, have tapped the skills of the Welsh workforce to extend their operations in the European market. The companies, specialising mainly in motor manufacturing, electronics and engineering such as Ford, Bosch, Sony and Mitsubishi have so far have created an estimated 110,000 jobs.

One in three Welsh workers is employed by a foreign-owned company. While many of the jobs are relatively low-paid - average earnings in the principality are the second lowest in Britain after the North-east - the strangers bearing gifts have provided a lifeline.

The increasing investment has brought a need for new skills. The further education sector in Wales, as in the rest of the country, has been expected to play its part in training tomorrow's workforce.

The sector, which won independence from local authorities three years ago, is making progress. Numbers in Welsh FE colleges have expanded dramatically in the last three years, rising from a full-time equivalent of 43,800 students in 199293 to 56,318 at 35 colleges and other institutions last year.

The Further Education Funding Council for Wales, tasked with steering the sector post incorporation, also boasts of substantially increasing the number of students from disadvantaged areas or with special educational needs.

Yet, according to the Welsh Development Agency's chief economist Brian Morgan, the region is facing a skills crisis. The flourishing electronics industry needs more high-calibre workers.

"We just haven't got enough trained technicians," he says. "Nor do we have enough people with the basic skills who can be trained up. It's absolutely imperative that we provide industry with the trained workforce it needs.

"We're already experiencing skills shortages in the electronics industry. "

The FEFC is aiming for continued growth in student numbers and increased responsiveness to the labour market and employers' needs.

Professor John Andrews, the agency's chief executive, believes the region is well-placed to meet the challenge.

"The Welsh workforce is extremely adaptable and hard working. We want to keep the development going and that means we've got to have people with the right backgrounds and the ability to adapt," he says.

Yet the FE sector is facing a tight squeeze on its finances, with an on-going cut of 5 per cent a year in its overall budget to create what the Government calls "efficiency gains". Robin Trebilcock, principal of Neath College and chair of Fforwm, representing all the Welsh colleges, warns the continuing cuts - made worse, he says, by the loss of discretionary grants and other items - will affect the quality of provision.

Further, it will restrict colleges' ability to increase participation among disadvantaged groups, one of the most expensive activities. Nor will the Government's Private Finance Initiative - in which the private sector is encouraged to invest in public-sector organisations - provide a panacea.

"The rush to PFI is not going to solve the problem," says Mr Trebilcock.

"There are not many activities going on in FE colleges that lend themselves to private funding. We have no alternative but to look to state funding to provide the bulk of what we need.

"But the Government's spending plans show that there isn't going to be enough to meet the needs of the sector. The quality of provision is going to suffer and we're going to find it very difficult to reach out into the community to disaffected groups.

"We've already delivered huge efficiency gains which other parts of the education service have not been called on to do. Yet we're having this arbitrary cut imposed on us year after year."

There is no doubt, many believe, that like the rest of the FE sector in the UK, there was a great deal of waste and inefficiency built into the system before incorporation.

A series of financial crises in colleges have pointed to the fact that some face serious problems and mergers or closures, most likely among smaller institutions in rural areas, seem probable as the system is rationalised.

The House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee, which embarked on an inquiry into FE in Wales in February covering, among other things, the management of colleges, resources and the effects of competition, should help clarify the situation.

In its evidence to the Select Committee, Fforwm wants to see an end to the present arrangement in which schools and colleges receive their funding from different government departments and agencies.

And it wants all post-16 education and training, whether in schools, colleges or private organisations funded through training and enterprise councils, to be subjected to a common system of assessment.

There is a lot of poor quality training going on outside the colleges, says Fforwm. It wants all training being paid for with public money to be subject to the same assessment criteria.

Professor Andrews of the FEFCW says that the future will be challenging. "The performance of the Welsh FE sector this year has been absolutely superb, " he says.

"We have been treated as well as could reasonably be expected over the past few years against a difficult economic background. But the problem we face this year is a very tough budget settlement. That is worrying because obviously we would like to see the growth maintained."

The future may lie in a far more flexible system than operated before incorporation - and already being vigorously pursued by many Welsh FE colleges - of links with employers and other educational and training institutions including schools and universities to provide tailor-made courses in the skills needed by industry.

The Dearing report also heralds profound changes and could lead to more co-operation between schools and colleges.

It could also help remedy the urgent problem of the alarmingly high number of young people leaving schools in Wales at 16 without any qualifications - twice the number in England.

Mr Trebilcock of Fforwm believes that should be the foundation stone of debate over the future of FE in Wales. There is a significant decline at the age of 16," he says. "We ought to be looking at what we're doing with that as the starting point."

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