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Who trained the Barber of Seville?

As Sir Ron Dearing starts his inquiry into higher education, Michael Austin defines the chameleon role of FE colleges

Further education is like opera: most people know what it is like, few could say what it is for. Everybody has heard about expensive sets, highly-paid performers and a thumping subsidy from public money, and that goes for opera, too. However, it seems that people who enjoy The Barber of Seville for what it is, feel uneasy if they do not know what hairdressing training is for. Nobody seriously questions why we have schools or universities. Colleges are different, and their role is often described negatively as, for example: "They do what schools and universities don't do", or "They are the non-academic part of the system".

Such definition by subtraction has concealed what our purposes are. College managers have not helped both by pretending that we do everything, which is clearly absurd, and by speaking in jargon-rich code about what we do best. That has made the promotion of the sector virtually impossible.

Our core business is the preparation of people for a working life in all the professions, trades and vocations. Butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers may not be quite so crucial to the economy as they were, but if you walk down any main street you are likely to pass banks, building societies, solicitors, travel agents, shoe shops and fast-food outlets. Colleges have probably trained most if not all of those who work there, just as the mechanics in the garages, the hairdressers in the salons, the carers in the old folks' homes and the construction workers on the building site will have passed through our hands.

Colleges do not exist, however, merely to make sure that the population remains warm, clad, well-fed and solvent. Look at any country in the world with a successful, modern economy and you will find, between the stratum of unskilled or semi-skilled workers (a vanishing species) and the graduate class of senior managers (of whom we have plenty), a key layer of highly proficient technicians and supervisors with intermediate level qualifications. Our national targets for education and training acknowledge this. Devised and suggested originally by industry, the targets have been taken up and amended by the Government and are quoted on all sides as essential landmarks on the way to national prosperity.

You can't get these sorts of qualifications in a school or a university. The employment guru, Professor Charles Handy, and others have pointed out that the future pattern of employment will be one in which people work increasingly in fluid teams, assembled for particular tasks to provide short-term contracted services. Success in this sort of environment will demand people who are adaptable, collaborative, able to manage others and self-motivating.

Those are exactly the sort of requirements made of those looking for certification at level 3 and above in the framework of national vocational qualifications. It is from colleges that project workers will come, with highly developed skills in communication, number and information technology.

The concept of modern apprenticeships rests upon this notion of advanced technical skills allied to the knowledge and understanding which gives the individual the confidence to innovate, to think laterally and to find new solutions. Fostering modern apprenticeships will be a key job for colleges, in fact it already is. As the purveyors of vocational education to the nation, colleges will have to continue the rapid changes they have undertaken in recent years. The carefully calibrated system of kitemarks which makes up the different levels of NVQs, and which brings some order to the 15,000 qualifications recognised by our Funding Council, provides the climbing-frame for those in work or preparing for it. But the most logical pattern in the world, which it may well be despite continuing faults, is of no use unless people can get in or out when they need to.

Our tradition has been to provide part-time education, and our full-time programmes are relatively recent, but too often part-time means the same day every week for 30-odd weeks, starting in the autumn. To be at the heart of the economy we need to keep up with the changing ways of other kinds of business. We are there to sell our wares, and we should take note of what successful retailers do: stay open later, open up at weekends and put customer satisfaction first. We do, after all train people to do that, we must do it ourselves. Most colleges would say that they are, and that we've gone a long way towards start-when-you-like courses, individual programmes, and assessment on demand. As Mozart's librettist put it, roughly, in The Marriage of Figaro: "It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it."

So that's our core, illustrated by the fact that nearly three out of every four qualifications achieved by college students on programmes paid for by the Funding Council are vocational. Take that away and we are hollow. But it is not all we do. In fact there are many teachers at many colleges who have never been involved in any of it, and wouldn't want to be.

The rest of our curriculum comes into one of three categories. One bit is for those who need help with basic education, mainly English and mathematics, to give them a ticket to other education; one bit is leisure classes for adults; and the third, and only really contentious bit, is to provide an alternative setting for what schools and universities do. Which means, mainly, A-levels and degrees.

These three variations on our dominant theme, counterpoint to the recurrent melody, derive from the other part of our mission, to meet the needs of individuals. Of all the sectors, ours is the most used to being demand-led, and the consequence has been the development of courses designed for local circumstances. In places where school sixth-form provision is limited, or non-existent, colleges have filled the gap, and there are now more A-level students in colleges than in schools. In areas where there is no higher education institution, colleges have often been able to develop degree-level courses for those who, for a variety of personal, domestic reasons cannot travel to a distant university.

Colleges with a university quite close at hand have also built up distinctive HE programmes which reflect, for example, the particular needs of local employers. The distinctiveness may be in subject matter or in flexible ways of attending, but the characteristics are typical of colleges in that they are shaped by the local context, and support the aspirations of those who live there. FE has not only a price-list, it has a value system.

As colleges take on the colours of their immediate surroundings they change as their surroundings change - companies come and go, communities mutate - and they certainly have patterns which differ from those of others. But a chameleon is still a chameleon, whatever it may look like.

What the college system has never had is a defining moment. There has been no Runnymede, no address at Gettysburg, nothing nailed to a church door in Wittenberg. We were not brought into existence by any sort of cosmic Big Bang, only by an obscure paragraph in a forgotten piece of legislation allowing for a local tax on whisky to be used to develop vocational education.

Whatever it is for, Verdi's Aida is magnificent. A good production requires teamwork by, among others, properly trained set-builders, costume-designers, musicians, singers, painters, sales staff and directors, with the audience's enjoyment increased by the work of caterers and front-of-house staff, to say nothing of taxi-drivers and Underground employees. Some of them will probably have got their training from a chameleon near you.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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