Further education colleges should play a central role in the government's forthcoming skills strategy - but only if they are willing to compete for training contracts with private providers - politicians and business leaders said this week.
The message came as the Association of Colleges staged a reception on Tuesday at Westminster for college and student leaders, politicians, government officials and industry representatives, as part of its "Colleges at the heart of business" campaign to raise the training profile of further education.
Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman who attended the reception, said college leaders had so far failed to persuade the government of further education's central role in training.
"They have been stirred into action by the chancellor's budget statement that indicated it would be industry and the private sector that would deliver the bulk of the skills agenda.
"What is needed is a clear view of what we want the sector to deliver, and for the sector to be freed to compete in the training market," he said.
Margaret Murray, head of the Confederation of British Industry's learning and skills group, said it was time to "move forward to a different kind of FE model".
She added: "Students and employers should have more of a choice of training providers. That kind of competition is good for colleges as well as everyone else."
Damian Green, the Conservative education spokesman, said: "Employers are saying that too many people are getting qualifications that are not valuable to them. One of the things the skills strategy needs to address is the relevance of qualifications."
But the AoC warned that the government's target of halving the number of workers without qualifications would fail unless radical policy changes were made to allow colleges to fully meet the needs of business.
Even though colleges delivered 200 million training days a year compared with 60 million by employers, they could do more if qualifications and funding were broken down into smaller units, the AoC said.
AoC chief executive David Gibson said the government needed to address this and clarify what employers and industry wanted from colleges in its skills white paper, expected to be published at the end of this month.
"While thousands of companies do work with colleges on a local level, there is often a real lack of a coherent view regionally and nationally about what business and industry wants from the further education sector. The AoC would like the government's skills strategy to take the lead in uniting the education needs of the economy and helping industry to work constructively with colleges," he said.