The bridegroom is big industry with an impressive array of money and technology. The bride is FE with a tempting range of knowledge, experience and skills. And the matchmaker is the Government which wants colleges to make their training expertise more widely available to the commercial world. Phil Revell reports on a marriage made in Longbridge.
Eric had Ernie and Del Boy has Rodney. Tony's got Cherie. Gordon Brown has Prudence. Partners all. Organisations can be partners too: Airbus industries, the European consortium created to challenge Boeing's dominance of the aviation industry, is the oft-quoted example. Government is very keen on partnerships, with many departments extolling the virtues of finding a buddy and discovering common ground. But the reality can be a little different. Ask any married couple and they'll tell you the difficulties begin on the way back down the aisle.
"The signing is the easy bit," says Alastair Morton, business programmes manager at Rover Group's Longbridge headquarters. Rover has done a deal with Dudley College that puts FE in the middle of the workplace. "It's the living together that's difficult. We have had to overcome unbelievable problems in terms of moving people around and finding the kind of skills we want."
Rover's training partnership with Dudley captures the spirit of the Learning and Skills Act, which looks to encourage colleges to act as training centres for private industry in an attempt to raise standards. It was highlighted in the task force report to ministers during the BMW sale of Rover. It began three years ago when the company was looking to broaden the spectrum of its training: at that time everything was done in-house.
"I felt that the old instructor-led provision was too narrow," says Mr Morton. "The emphasis was on skills rather than knowledge." He decided to go outside and began his search with a look at what the FE colleges in the area had to offer. "We needed some very integrated relationships with educational providers, so that we could convey to them exactly what we needed," he said.
Mr Morton soon discovered Dudley College, where Gordon Hopkins' leadership style made an immediate impression.
"Dudley's mentality was reflected in their tender," says Mr Morton. The college won the contract. "We then set about organising which part of the project we would each be responsible for."
Longbridge is a huge sprawling car plant straddling the A38 to the south-west of Birmingham. Nearly 7,000 people work there, producing the medium-range Rover 25 and Rover 45. Its future as a car-making operation has been the investment decision hanging over its owners' heads for nearly 20 years. When BMW pulled out last year, it was the latest investor to shy away from the huge costs involved in introducing 21st century production techniques in a building designed for labour-intensive methods.
A link with the Malaysian manufacturer Proton could be the first step on the road to recovery. But what Rover managers describe as "upskilling" - the development of a multi-skilled flexible workforce - is another crucial piece of the jigsaw. And that's where Dudley's involvement could be crucial. It operates out of what used to be Longbridge's west canteen. Rover are the landlords, having invested pound;600,000 in refurbishment before it opened for business. Dudley has picked up the tab for equipment and staff.
"If you took staff costs as well as equipment, the college's investment so far is in the order of several million pounds," says the college's vice-principal, Rowland Foote. A tour round the facilities would make most FE lecturers weep with frustration: no expense has been spared to equip the building with the very latest kit.
Rover needs people with highly developed skills in hydraulics and pneumatics. Just one machine in the Longbridge training centre is valued at pound;750,000. Test-benches for pneumatics cost pound;400,000. There is a flexible learning area where Rover employees can upgrade skills alongside local people, outsiders - another feature of the deal that interested ministers. Despite the huge investment by the carmaker, it doesn't have exclusive use of the facilities: RAF Cosford in the West Midlands uses the centre for training its apprentices and local people can enrol on courses. Many companies in Rover's position would have wanted sole use.
"We don't take that view," says Morton. "The problem with exclusivity is that it puts people into a situation where they only see their own view. They don't make connections, they don't learn."
Three years ago, when Rover approached local colleges in its serach for a partner, one of the frustrating aspects was the failure of most of the bidders to demonstrate the capacity to "think outside the box".
"Some felt that they could come in and do this kind of project on the cheap - and you can't," says Alastair Morton. "We had people thinking that you could send in a tutor with a set of books."
Dudley's bid stood out because the college demonstrated a willingness to meet Rover more than half way.
"We were talking to somebody who shared our commercial understanding. That took us away from the relationships we'd had, which were based upon the purple prose of education, and put us into the hard brass tacks perspective of industry."
Mr Morton argues that there is over-capacity in FE provision in the West Midlands: "Often what that inspires is a desire to tell the customer that he can have whatever he wants, but there is an inability to make it happen, so the customer becomes disillusioned. You'll never have a partnership if you keep promising to deliver something which never materialises."
He cites the linear year as a particular sticking point when it comes to industrialists forging partnerships with further education. "The tradition in a college is to say 'It's not on my timetable - I can't do that'." In contrast, the Longbridge training centre prides itself on its ability to deliver at short notice.
"Yesterday, some people across the way were stood down," says Trevor Brazier, who manages the centre. "They came over here and wanted a CLAIT (local government technology) course. We spoke about how we could service them and a course started at 8:30 this morning. Someone came from the main site flexible learning suite and released a lecturer here to deliver the course."
Another sticking point is FE's dowdy image. "There is a view in industry that colleges offer you generic material and that if you want state-of-the-art training you have to go to private training companies," says Mr Morton. "We're not a long way from the Meat 1 scenario in the Wilt books (in which Tom Sharpe's anti-hero takes butchers' apprentices for liberal studies - 'like delivering metaphorical pearls to real swine'.) That's generally the perception of industrialists, that FE is about pre-packaged courses with a hefty dose of liberal education."
All of which leaves enthusiasm for partnerships hanging in the air. The Dudley-Rover deal is clearly working, but does it offer a template? David Arscott, a consultant at Lambeth College in south London and organiser of a conference on the subject next month, believes such deals represent the future. "The emphasis is on the formality of the relationship," he says. "There's the legal relationship, but it's not just a contract for money - there's a transfer of other benefits as well."
These could include capital investment in facilities, as at Dudley, or the long-term secondment of staff. "Partnerships represent great opportunities for colleges," he argues.
In the United States, partnerships have already been shown to work. In Denver, Johnson Controls entered into a deal with the local community college. The company donated building-systems materials to the college, which built a new training facility on its downtown campus. The company uses it for 30 hours a week while college students have access to some of the most up-to-date environmental controls and management training facilities in the world.
The US experience also demonstrates that partnerships do not have to be single-company deals. Chrysler, Texas Instruments Motorola, Xerox and Kodak are part of a consortium that negotiated training for all employees and those of all its suppliers. Several community colleges have signed up to deliver programmes to any of the firms or plants within their catchment areas.
Supply-chain training, as it is called, is built into the Dudley deal, with Johnson Controls, as one of the suppliers to Rover, using the Longbridge centre for its workers.
"In order to achieve quality you have to have some common understanding of what standards have to be," says Rover's Alastair Morton. "By extending our training procedures through the supply chain, we build a common understanding of quality processes and practices."
A one-day conference on how to set up and manage commercial partnerships in education will be held on Wednesday November 29 at Chelsea Football Club. For details, tel: 020 8 941 4611