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College courses must become more relevant to work-place needs

The government's Trade and Industry Select Committee inquiry into the future of UK manufacturing has been told that college and university courses must become more relevant to the needs of the work place.

Jack Matthews, chief executive of Improve, the food and drink sector skills council, was giving evidence at a session investigating skill shortages when he highlighted that of all training commissioned by employers in his sector, only seven per cent went through further-education colleges. The vast majority, 85 per cent, was delivered on the job, and the rest was delivered through private training providers.

“If we are going to increase the delivery from the public sector, then we have to address what employers are buying into,” he said. “Training programmes have got to be much more relevant to the needs of the employer and the employee. It will mean that colleges will start to shift how their programmes are developed and delivered. For instance, you do not have to end up with a qualification. We need to address the question – does the skill and competence you have gained improve your ability to do your job?”

“The emphasis needs to be on flexibility in how qualifications and competences are achieved so that the learner can start to deliver skills at an earlier stage as they work through their qualification. In training, as in all their investments, employers are looking for value for money and a pay-back in hard productivity and business performance.”

In answer to MPs' questions on what sector skills councils were doing about the problem, Jack Matthews explained that current initiatives were geared to engaging employers in leading qualifications and curriculum reform. He explained: “Once they are engaged in the process of reform they can start to give emphasis on the point at which pay-back on training investment starts to bite as well as delivering the competence and skill required by the individual.”

As an example of early progress, he revealed that since Improve had worked with employers to reform the framework for foundation degrees in food manufacturing, the number of new starters at colleges and universities had increased to 124 in the current year, from 30 the previous year. “These are not great numbers but when you have to convince the colleges to take on these changes it takes time,” he said.

He also cited the forthcoming Sector Skill Agreements, which Improve will be presenting to individual employers during 2007. They will be asked to enter into partnerships with public and private training providers to ensure that employees can have access to relevant learning opportunities, and that this will allow them to acquire the skills required in a way that is cost-effective to the employer.

Also before the committee were Lyn Tomkins, operations director of the Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technologies (SEMTA) sector skills council, and Mark Fisher, chief executive of the Sector Skills Development Agency.

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