Stephen Hoare reports on the controversy over the GNVQ intended to prepare students for work in the leisure and tourism industries.
A voracious appetite for travel, entertainment and sport is boosting the economy and confirming the value of leisure and tourism to colleges - courses in the subject now rank second in the popularity league.
But the general national vocational qualification designed to meet the demand for staff is not good enough, say many industrialists.
One industry chief has described the standards of students as "a national disgrace" and doubts whether efforts to improve training will work.
This year 22 million tourists visited Britain, warming the hearts of restaurant and hotel proprietors and sending the service industry's turnover rocketing with a 25 per cent increase on last year's takings.
Soaring demand for travel, beds, meals, entertainment, theme parks, sports and keep-fit is creating a vast range of service-sector jobs - everything from marketing tourist destinations and conserving heritage to customer care.
And colleges have been attempting to supply that new breed of multi-skilled employee - expert in the latest management techniques but also able to make beds or serve meals when the need arises.
The Further Education Funding Council reports that leisure and tourism is an increasingly significant sub-set of hotel and catering. Part-time and full-time enrolments are projected to rise by 59 per cent and 26 per cent respectively over the next two years.
Courses are available at 386 further education colleges and an increasing number of schools. The Business and Technology Education Council, for example, has approved 1,117 leisure and tourism GNVQ courses from intermediate (GCSE-equivalent) to advanced level. They can now be offered by schools though only a few hundred are qualified to run them.
The leisure and tourism GNVQ is offered by three awarding bodies - The Royal Society of Arts, City and Guilds, and BTEC.
According to BTEC, the main provider for colleges, the diversity of jobs has boosted leisure and tourism at the expense of the traditional subjects - sport and recreation, hotel and catering - where the emphasis is on practical skills. The awarding body's figures show that from 1987 to 1995 student enrolments in leisure and tourism rose from 2,000 to 26,000 - a 13-fold increase. However, the other side of the coin is that skills-based national vocational qualifications have grown little and stand accused of failing to respond to changes that are sweeping through the business.
There is no over-arching lead body to set standards which meet all the needs of a diverse industry. NVQs remain the preserve of the Hotel and Catering Training Company, the Sport and Recreation Industrial Training Organisation (SPRITO) and the travel industry lead body.
Anne Clegg, chief verifier for leisure and tourism at BTEC, said: "If the industries had their way no one would have even put forward a qualification in leisure and tourism because they are not considered bedfellows."
The rise and rise of the GNVQ in leisure and tourism has brought problems. Some critics say the syllabus is out of touch with employers' needs and that awarding bodies have produced a qualification without vocational or academic relevance.
There is a high drop-out rate around 10 per cent nationally but more than 30 per cent in places but those students who do stay on see the GNVQ as a way into higher education.
Employers, on the other hand, claim the qualification fails to give students the hands-on experience in the "dirty skills" needed for the hotel kitchen or sports centre.
Richard Allen, head of training at the English Tourist Board, said: "The chronic lack of people coming out of colleges with the sort of craft skills that employers need is a national disgrace. The problem is that the GNVQ is pretty cheap for colleges and schools whereas practical courses like catering which need a lot of resourcing are closing down."
This problem is recognised by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications. Last month it published the Capey Report which made 19 recommendations to improve GNVQs.
The council calls on awarding bodies and colleges to ensure that all leisure and tourism courses are adequately funded and taught by trained staff.
And the revisions to the GNVQ which came into effect last autumn creating two options - sports and recreation and travel and tourism - are helping to beef up the qualification's vocational content.
Ms Clegg of BTEC said: "The original GNVQ programme didn't really create enough pathways into employment. Now it is becoming a recognised qualification and students should be able to go straight into a job and start work.
"It is not just the option units that have changed, the business core units are more focused with finance, marketing, business systems and human resource management - the four essential supervisory and management skills."
But Mr Allen of the ETB remains unconvinced. "Leisure and tourism is being done by a huge number of colleges but I doubt it's being done properly. Students should be warned that the GNVQ may not always open door to careers in tourism. "