Links with the private sector can be productive - for both sides. Michael Prestage reports
Students at Solihull further education college in the West Midlands have access to state-of-the-art science equipment available to no one else in Britain.
Is it a wealthy college? Did students and staff spend years raising funds? No. In fact, Philip Harris, the UK's leading manufacturer of scientific equipment, provided the equipment, and in exchange has exclusive use the college's premises, laboratories and staff expertise to use as a "showcase" institution for commercial demonstrations.
And the scheme is a model example of what the Department of Trade and Industry is exhorting businesses to do in its Learning Through Business Networks initiative. This initiative aims to spread learning in the community - to foster new skills among potential employees while showing the human face of industry.
The partnership is well ahead of the DTI game. It has lasted 10 years and has proved a winner for both sides - living proof that links with the private sector can be productive.
"It has been a wonderful example of co-operation between an education company and the teaching profession," says John Foley, marketing director at Philip Harris. "The college has done a terrific job and the partnership has created lots of interest."
Phil Godding, who first approached Philip Harris as head of science at the college, says: "There is no doubt that having access to the latest science technology gives our students a big advantage."
But he warns that setting up such a scheme is hard work. "Colleges can't expect that because they have a good idea companies will invest. They have to show what companies will get back."
Solihull received pound;30,000 of equipment for a lab in 1989, and since then has continuedto receive state-of-the-art equipment for students. They are currently using the latest hi-tech cameras linked to a microscope to download images on to a computer. Each camera is worth pound;600 - that representsa substantial saving for thecollege.
Philip Harris also provides a range of datalogging and control technology that can be used in the lab or out in the field. "If it's new we have got it," says Phil Godding. "We often trial products before they come on the market."
The training courses the college provides for Philip Harris staff and teachers from surrounding schools and colleges provide much-needed revenue for the college.
For the company, it helps that teachers being trained at Solihull are using its equipment and are likely to purchase the products once they return to their own school or college.
Philip Harris brings potential customers to the lab to see its equipment in action, and the college can give valuable feedback on new products. This has proved invaluable and helped the company in subsequent design and modifications.
Solihull made the approach while it was looking at marketing opportunities with several companies. John Foley was instantly impressed.
He explains: "I get a lot of proposals for co-operation but this was very professionally delivered. I felt an instant rapport with the college staff." So Philip Harris agreed to equip the lab and use it in company publicity material, which also raised the profile of Solihull College.
Recently Solihull played a major part in the company winning a pound;20 million contract in Ghana, and college staff went out to deliver the training programme.
Over three years, a team of college staff delivered training to 500 teachers and technicians in Ghana. Mr Godding has also been on trips to the Far East and other parts of Africa, giving presentations and advising local governments. He now works part-time for the college and part-time for Philip Harris, where his role involves curriculum development, giving lectures on the company's behalf and providing a solid education input.
He praises college principal Colin Flint for allowing his staff the freedom to pursue such arrangements. "This college has always been at the forefront of change in FE and staff are able to develop ideas," he says.
The college's Philip Harris lab will move next year to a new site, and the company will again be involved in refitting it with the latest equipment.
"It has been a marvellous arrangement and we expect it will continue to evolve," says Mr Foley. "We have consistently called upon the college for advice and have included Phil Godding in some major decisions on product development."
Solihull College and Philip Harris are planning to bid to provide teacher training in ICT in science for the Fair Funding (National Lottery) Scheme, organised by the Teacher Training Agency.
If successful, both parties hope to be involved with a few hundred teachers in England and Wales, and will draw on the experience they have already gained. Mr Foley also expects more college involvement in product trials and development of curriculum support material.