"Employability" is the talk of the steamie. The SNP Government's drive to ensure Scotland "re-skills" its way out of the recession has put it at the top of the agenda.
That means the further education sector has been pushed to the forefront of attempts to engineer the economic recovery - and institutions, such as Dundee College, which make it their business to help business can expect to reap praise.
The most recent to have the new-style HMIE inspection, its efforts were described by inspectors as giving learners "excellent skills for employability through classroom activities and the college's work with external partners". Its approach was "well-embedded and highly effective". The report went on: "Programmes prepare learners well for employment and further learning, with more than a few (15-49 per cent, in HMIE terms) providing work placement opportunities or employment-related project work for learners. Teaching staff make frequent use of external professionals and industry representatives to teach elements of the curriculum, which enriches the learning experience and enhances skills for employability."
So excellent did the inspectors find this work that they gave it the soubriquet of "sector-leading and innovative". The "classroom to industry" programme aims to prepare disaffected or vulnerable learners for jobs in the hospitality industry, while a health and social care "academy" opened opportunities in those sectors for people who are long-term unemployed or made redundant. Both initiatives have enabled more than 60 per cent of students on the programmes to get a job.
As one student put it: "I worked in a factory all my life and, if I'd not been made redundant, I'd never have considered a career in care. Meeting people who had been on the course boosted my confidence to give it a go." He now works in adult mental health with NHS Tayside.
The college aims to make these students the "first choice" for employers. For instance, NHS Tayside guarantees an interview to all those who successfully complete a health-care pre-recruitment training course in the academy.
But the employability strategy also extends to the manufacturing sector, and the college has established a productive relationship with a Paris- based company which serves the oil and gas industry. Students get taster days to see if it is an industry for them, and HN engineering graduates are guaranteed job interviews.
Increasingly, however, colleges are not just expected to ensure that students engage in the world of work, but also engage in the work of the college. The first of the new FE inspections, in Angus College (TESS May 15), highlighted its success in "learner engagement".
Relationships between staff and students at Dundee were "respectful, friendly, productive and highly supportive", the report stated. The number of class representatives has increased by over 100 per cent in the past year to around 300, which gives students some influence in shaping their courses - and they have even been trained to help them do it.
The inspectors found that students were "empowered by a supportive college culture to contribute effectively to issues that influence their learning". This goes beyond learning: a student executive forum, formed out of the traditional students' association, "regularly and proactively" meets with management. The initiative so impressed the inspectors that it, too, was given the accolade of "sector-leading and innovative". The report continued: "These highly constructive relationships have resulted in learners feeling valued and confident in their abilities to contribute to discussions on wider college issues."
Also judged to be "sector-leading" is the college's student-mentoring scheme, pioneered by the centre for creative and digital industries, which supports students who lack confidence and require learning support. It is "for learners by learners", and students who show mentoring qualities are sent on a special training programme and their names entered in a "mentor bank" to match them up with candidates to be mentored.
The findings were endorsed by Jean Louis Venter, the college's outgoing student president: "Students don't just go through the motions of `going to college': they feel involved and they feel the college listens to them. While there's more to be done, things have greatly improved."
Like Angus College, Dundee has adopted a "you said, we did" initiative, allowing everyone to see what action staff take in response to representations from students. The effort necessary to achieve some sense of belonging is not inconsiderable, given that the college has 22,000 enrolments with students spread over five campuses.