It’s time for colleges to “acknowledge publicly that their primary purpose is their contribution to the economy,” believes Lynne Sedgmore.

Skills Minister Matthew Hancock officially launched our paper, A New Conversation, written together with our partners at the UK Commission for Employment and Skills and the Gazelle Group, on Tuesday, May 13.

This timely paper, and initially published on Tuesday, April 29, sets out key challenges for ‘raising the game’ of college-employer relations.

We propose that to fulfil the massive potential colleges have for contributing to growth in the UK, these relationships must become far more strategic than transactional.

Our report reflects the array of excellent practice already out there — many colleges have excellent partnerships with high-profile employers which already go beyond the commissioning and supplying of individual training programmes and are having genuine impact on the economy in their own localities.

But these examples have not been harnessed into something we might recognise as a truly national approach until now, and we intend the report will contribute to doing just that.

We make no apology for presenting challenging questions and messages for both colleges and employers

What is clear from Ministers, and our own research, is that we cannot wait for the government to fund and shape the future for us.

Mr Hancock says repeatedly that he wants colleges to break free from the constraints of funding rules and to establish their own place as social enterprises and drivers of economic growth.

The prize is a big one — recognition by employers, and others, of what we in sector already know is true — that colleges are a vital part of both economic prosperity and personal wellbeing for a great many people.

Now is the time to demonstrate that we are willing, and well-equipped, to lead more strategic and effective employer engagement. We make no apology for presenting challenging questions and messages for both colleges and employers.

The time has come, we believe, for colleges to acknowledge publicly that their primary purpose is their contribution to the economy. This may require, for some, a re-examination of who we believe we are accountable to, a deeper understanding of local economic drivers and a soul-searching re-appraisal of the qualities needed by our leaders and our teachers. This does not need to negate the crucial social role we play in our communities.

As the report by the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning made plain, we need a ‘two-way street’, and our paper challenges employers to step up to the plate also.

They must not ignore their local college, and they must develop an understanding of the future workforce pipeline that will enable them to continue to grow by engaging with college leaders. If we believe Confederation of British Industry director-general John Cridland’s words at the recent national Gazelle conference, employers have never been more ready to do this. We know that they, too, must ‘put their money and commitment where their mouth is’.

So — what next? This cannot be a report which sits on shelves and gathers dust.

The future prosperity of our skills system is too critical for that. The Education and Training Foundation will build on our action points in designing their future programme, and colleges must create chances, both locally and nationally, for strategic relationships to grow and flourish.

We hope also that there will be a much more concerted approach to showcasing the excellent examples already in existence.

The 157 Group, in partnership, will continue to do all it can to help colleges to ‘up their game’ and be recognised for the important engines of economic growth that they truly are.

Lynne Sedgmore, Executive director, 157 Group