Colleges must focus on business needs

In the same week that staff walked out as part of a long-running dispute over pay, Sir Andrew Foster’s review of the further education (FE) sector was published and was broadly welcomed by government, employers and unions alike.

The review looked at how the sector, which comprises about 380 tertiary, sixth-form and specialist colleges and employs more than 280,000 people, can be improved and developed to meet the requirements of the modern workplace.

The government-commissioned report concludes that employers want a “crystal clear” focus on key skills. It recommends closer links between business and the sector and that FE colleges “must take better account of employer needs and act on these”.

Foster’s report said a focus on skills was vital because the ‘tiger’ economies such as India, China and South Korea were investing heavily in skills and were a serious threat to the UK economy.

The scale of the problem is illustrated by government figures which show the UK is ranked 22nd out of 30 countries in terms of the proportion of the adult workforce with an NVQ Level 2 qualification (equivalent to five GCSEs grades A-C).

Foster recommends that FE colleges make ‘skilling up’ employees their central priority and said private providers should be allowed to bid for government funding to develop skills training.

The CBI’s deputy director general, John Cridland, welcomed the focus on business needs. “Skills are a passport to prosperity so it is essential that any decisions that can improve training are taken,” he said.

“FE colleges are suffering an identity crisis and offer a confusing mish-mash of services and standards. So [Foster] is right to say they must concentrate on training people for work.”

TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, said: “For too long FE has been the poorest sibling in the education sector, despite training millions of people in the very skills our economy is crying out for.”

Employers have repeatedly called for FE colleges to provide more practical and vocational courses.

The Association of Col-leges said it recognised there was more to do to improve quality, adding that employers “are investing too little”.

The report highlights this patchy relationship bet-ween colleges and business. “Employers need to think more systematically about their medium-term skill needs, develop business cases concerning them and discuss with FE colleges,” it states.

Foster said there was no single magic bullet to put things right. More effective engagement with employers, a systematised approach to listening to learners and a modernising of leadership are key themes.

Employers will be watching to see if the Foster report will be a catalyst for the government to address their concerns and drag the FE sector into the 21st century.

However, FE unions are unhappy that the Foster review does little to address the sector’s own funding gaps, with lecturers opting for higher-paid positions in schools and higher education establishments. And until the government moves to close this pay gap, then reforming FE’s image will remain a secondary concern for staff in the sector.

BOXHEAD: the hr perspective

BYLINE: Keith Luxon,
HR director, Veolia Water UK

BOXTEXT: “As a regionally-based employer we have a number of FE colleges in our area and find that the quality of the candidates from them varies considerably. There appears to be very little standardisation across the board and sometimes even within individual colleges the quality of the education varies. This has resulted in us being very cautious in recruiting from some colleges.”

BOXHEAD: The foster review recommendations

BOXTEXT: <2002>One inspectorate which will be tough on failing colleges.
<2002>Failing colleges could face being taken over by other education institutes or private companies.
<2002>Colleges to listen more to learners’ views.
<2002>Colleges to improve their response to the needs of local and regional employers.
<2002>Revitalised workforce reform and leadership development. Colleges to promote their role better locally.
<2002>Funding incentives to encourage colleges to develop vocational specialisms.

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