Magazine article Public Finance

Opportunity Knocked

Magazine article Public Finance

Opportunity Knocked

Article excerpt

The government is under pressure to 'upskill' the UK's workforce by expanding further and higher education and providing more relevant and work-related courses for students. This was one of the key messages from the recent Leitch review on skills, and certainly lies behind current moves to raise the school-leaving age to 18. But where is all the extra capacity to educate and train these students going to come from?

One eager contender is the private sector, which is increasingly involved in providing further and higher education in the UK. Under the government's Private Finance Initiative, a considerable amount of infrastructure has recently been built in both sectors involving private companies. And their input is set to develop with the extension of competition for further education funding, and with the growth of tuition fees, employer-led provision and the international student market in higher education.

The response to this has been mixed, with fears about the potential impact on teaching quality, as well as hostility from employees in both sectors anxious about future work conditions. Past failures provide a warning for colleges and universities of the risks attached to joint ventures with businesses.

But there are rich pickings to be had. The Learning and Skills Council, which oversees public funding for further education in England, spends more than £10bn a year. The 2006 Department for Education and Skills' further education white paper Raising skills, improving life chances proposed contestability' - opening up funding to competition from independent and voluntary providers, as well as other colleges. It said that any 'failing or coasting' college that did not improve within a year could be handed over to the private sector.

The most striking example of opening up provision is in the new work-based programme Train to Gain. Designed to be led by employer demand, it will receive £460m in 2007/08. The LSC states: 'Train to Gain is 100% contestable, and all providers must win employers' business to realise their contract's value.'

In general, the council sets out four 'triggers' for competitive tendering: new investment (such as Train to Gain); restructuring of provision; gaps in provision; and poor quality.

Not surprisingly, private providers are positioning themselves to compete for a slice of further education funding. Two leading companies are Carter & Carter Group and VT Plus Training. Both have recently bought up other training providers, and are growing fast.

Carter & Carter provides training in manufacturing industries and runs apprenticeship programmes. Last October it announced a partnership with Castle College Nottingham to offer training in automotive retail, automotive engineering, construction, sport, health and social care, as well as work-based learning. Carter & Carter says it is looking to work with other FE colleges.

VT Plus Training, part of Vosper Thorneycroft, the support services, military supplies and shipbuilding company, describes itself as the second largest private sector provider of vocational training in the UK. It mainly works in the hospitality, leisure, engineering and care sectors but is expanding into retail training.

Other independent providers include: the Centre for British Teachers, a charity that specialises in prison education and in the government's Skills for Life adult literacy and numeracy programme; Capita Learning and Development - part of the Capita Group - which provides courses for the government's Learndirect IT training scheme; and Nord Anglia Education, whose portfolio includes training for colleges, careers advice and learning support for offenders.

The University and College Union, which represents lecturers in further and higher education, has expressed concern about these developments. It says that education and training should be run by 'democratically accountable local bodies', and does not accept that private companies can give staff a better deal than FE colleges. …

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