Around the corner from a cheese shop in London's Covent Garden, some bright spark has scribbled a quote by the American philosopher and designer Buckminster Fuller: "You never change things by fighting existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
Wise words, particularly so for colleges at a time when they are introducing new training schemes for British business. A selection of colleges that have built these new models – and thereby successfully engaged with employers – were showcased at a parliamentary reception to mark the launch of a new alliance between colleges and business. The colleges included Bridgwater, which in partnership with Skillfast-UK has developed a new apprenticeship qualification for Mulberry, the luxury leather-goods company; Gateshead College, which created a replica production line for the Nissan car plant so that workers could train without slowing down output; and Basingstoke College of Technology, which has trained thousands of NHS workers in IT skills by working around busy hospital shift patterns.
When colleges engage with employers, business likes it. Nine out of 10 companies that have used a college centre of excellence say that they would come back for more. But is there enough of this kind of engagement? Colleges should always be on the front foot, looking for long-term investment. Change shouldn't be a cosmetic process of re-branding a building, joining the Chamber of Commerce and leafleting locally; the model has to be new. Nor should change be based on an unrealistic view of employer behaviour. Delivering late-night, off-site training to a bakery, for instance, is impractical. To make the most of the market, colleges need to have a sales force, marketing expertise, and staff with industry knowledge and up-to-date skills. It is critical that they lever money out of full-cost work and become less reliant on the public purse.
The parliamentary reception was a metaphor for successful skills delivery: colleges and employers together, with the local MP taking a keen interest.
The long-term success of skill development in the UK will depend, in the main, on understanding: employers understanding the benefits of training to their business and employees, colleges understanding the needs of business, and the Government understanding the reality in which training providers operate. That requires research, empathy, patience, and an open mind. There is another quote on that wall in Covent Garden, this time from the author Gwen Bristow: "Nothing is easier than believing we understand experiences we've never had."
Sue Dutton is the acting chief executive of the Association of Colleges