The government said this week that it wants further education colleges to refocus provision on training because they have skewed their educational mission in favour of higher education.
The Department for Education and Employment has said that it intends to "reel in" colleges that are "moving further up market" and away from skills training into the realm of higher education provision such as higher national diplomas.
Only last year, the government told colleges that they would be expected to provide the bulk of the extra 100,000 higher education places by 2002. The government wants these provided at sub-
degree level, with qualifications such as HNDs. The government now seems to feel that colleges have gone too far.
The shift was hinted at during this week's launch of a report from 10 Downing Street's Social Exclusion Unit.
Announcing a series of proposals in the Bridging the Gap report, education secretary David Blunkett said that learning opportunities for young people who drop out of education and training could be improved by bringing further education and training provision closer together.
A spokesman for the DFEE said later: "Basically we are refocusing further education. For a long time it has tended to be moving further up market to HNDs etc. We are trying to reel them in a bit. As a sector, it should be closer to training."
The spokesman denied that this position contradicted the government's planned expansion of higher education in colleges. He explained that any refocusing would occur within the post-16 learning and skills framework announced in the Learning to Succeed white paper a fortnight ago.
Colleges will play a pivotal role in the new local learning and skills councils that were announced in the white paper, the spokesman said.
About 50 local councils, on which local employers will be the single largest grouping, will plan post-16 provision for their locality. With training and enterprise councils abolished, colleges will be expected to take over much of the responsibility for work-based and work-related training. They ought to provide sub-degree qualifications if that is what local councils say localities need.
College bosses were stung by the comments. David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "I think it is excessively simplistic to say that college missions are drifting. Colleges are big enough to do both and have done both very well. As a sector, we are very much committed to the government's agenda on combating exclusion."
The plan to halt people falling out of education
The Bridging the Gap report makes a number of proposals designed to prevent about 160,000 16 to 18-year-olds a year dropping out of education.
The five main proposals will:
* Create a Youth Support Service forming part of the ConneXions strategy announced in the Learning to Succeed white paper.
* Create a US-style graduation certificate broadly equivalent to five good GCSEs or their level two vocational equivalent. It may also recognise sporting and other contributions.
* Provide better learning opportunities by bringing further education and training closer together and offering three main routes: general academic education, high-quality vocational education and part-time study while working.
* Provide more financial support, including extending the educational maintenance allowance pilot schemes to include transport subsidies, help for the disabled, the homeless and single parents.
* Improve the opportunities for young offenders to study while in custody.