Welcome to colleges: the next generation

Hope is that `centres of expertise' will plug higher-level skills gap

In the ongoing effort to close the gap between what education offers and what employers need, the focus has turned to tackling the shortage of higher level vocational skills.

Last week, business secretary Vince Cable said that high-level vocational training had "fallen through the gap" between the UK's higher and further education systems. But he added that the government believed it had a solution in the form of a "new generation" of specialist national colleges.

Mr Cable announced that the institutions would help to address the skills shortage by acting as "national centres of expertise" in key areas of the economy.

Three such facilities have already been announced. At one, workers will be trained for the HS2 high-speed rail project and at another to decommission nuclear reactors. The third will deliver engineering training at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry.

In the government's industrial strategy document released last week, the possibility of a site specialising in computer coding was also suggested. And a launch document inviting employers in other sectors to come forward with ideas will soon be published.

But although the FE sector has welcomed the news, it urged the government not to overlook current provision or to leave colleges and other providers out of the loop.

Gill Clipson, deputy director of the Association of Colleges, said that existing FE colleges should work alongside the new institutions. "Some colleges have been building their own capacity to meet the needs of emerging industries in the UK and have invested in staffing and facilities," she said. "Where we have that existing college network it would be disappointing to see public money being spent on building new national colleges. Let's not duplicate resources."

This message was echoed by the 157 Group of colleges. "We trust that the expertise, investment and resources that colleges already have will be utilised," said Lynne Sedgemore, the organisation's executive director.

However, she insisted that colleges would not fear competition. "We live in a competitive sector already," she said. "I believe colleges will step up to the plate in this new competitive space. There's no point in them whingeing about it."

According to Stewart Segal, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, many independent providers worked with colleges already and they should also be taken into account. "While we welcome greater investment, it needs to be linked to employer demand and co-investment where possible," he said. "The new initiative should not be focused on institutions but on the FE and skills system in general where there is a wide range of provision available."

According to a report published in January by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, vacancies in the UK related to skills shortages nearly doubled between 2009 and 2013, rising from 63,100 to 124,800. A spokeswoman for the commission said that employers must take the lead in the formation of national colleges to make sure that the courses they provided were relevant and up to date.

"There are already examples of excellent provision where employers are `co-owning' an institution, are heavily involved in developing and delivering training, and have formed partnerships which go beyond transactional relationships," she said. "Such institutions need to be demonstrably owned and led by employers - this includes employer investment working alongside public money."

One such example is Barking and Dagenham College in Essex, whose specialist Motor Vehicle and Motorsport Centre trains workers for the nearby Ford plant and a number of linked small and medium-sized enterprises.

Another institution that partners with leading employers is the Michael Caines Academy at Exeter College, which trains hospitality and catering professionals.

Mr Cable said that the new colleges would be employer-focused and would combine academic knowledge with practical application. "Where there is evidence of a shortage in higher vocational skills, and employers are willing to invest time and resources to address it, then the government will invest alongside you," he said.

"We want to hear from interested employers and we aim to announce the next set of national colleges by the end of the year."

Encouraging employer engagement

A joint report launched this week aims to help colleges and employers to build stronger links in order to improve adult skills.

The document, A New Conversation: employer and college engagement, is the result of 12 months of interviews, surveys and workshops carried out by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES), the 157 Group of colleges and the Gazelle Colleges Group.

Employers that already have close ties with colleges enjoy a range of strategic benefits, it states, including being able to identify young talent early, developing a local workforce with values that fit their business needs and using colleges to provide training they are unable to offer.

Colleges also support businesses by analysing labour market intelligence, giving guidance on accessing the skills system and tailoring training to meet specific local needs.

Case studies have shown that colleges that have close working relationships with employers - for example, by including business representatives on their governing bodies - are often recognised as playing a significant role in their local economy.

Fintan Donohue, chief executive of Gazelle Global, said: "The report highlights the value of entrepreneurial leadership and the need for a curriculum that prepares students for self-employment and independence as well as skilled employment. It challenges complacency and urges action."

John Cridland, a commissioner of the UKCES and director general of business organisation the CBI, said: "Building stronger bonds between colleges and employers is no easy task, but with the launch of this new paper we hope to initiate a wider discussion and create a better future for all.

"By forging more links between local colleges and firms in their area, we can help ensure that colleges produce students with the skills and characteristics employers need to thrive."

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