Training and Enterprise Council chiefs have challenged further education college leaders to provide them with hard evidence of TECs running courses in direct competition with further education institutions.
TEC national council officials issued the challenge this week following fresh claims that some TECs are contravening the terms of their contract with the Department of Employment by acting as training providers rather than purchasers, and setting up programmes already being run locally by colleges.
And they hit back with their own concerns over colleges "poaching" private training providers from the TECs, with the backing of superior resources supplied by the Further Education Funding Councils.
John Troth, head of the TEC national council's training policy group and chairman of North East Wales TEC, has asked the Association for Colleges to show him the evidence backing claims made by colleges in an AFC survey that TECs are setting up their own training programmes.
The AFC said it believed it had uncovered cases of TECs setting up companies to run courses, and was in the process of investigating the details. But Mr Troth said the accusations appeared to be the product of misunderstanding or the worries of college heads facing ambitious growth targets.
"They are worried about private providers, and they are trying to make the case that TECs ought to be supporting colleges. But at the end of the day they are only one of several providers on their patch, and they have to make themselves competitive," he said.
His comments were backed up by Graham Hoyle, chief executive of Gloucestershire TEC and a member of the policy group, who described the colleges' claims as "a red herring", and Chris Humphries, TEC national council chairman, who said that in three years of college allegations he had yet to see a scrap of evidence.
Yet the AFC's concerns have been echoed by some TEC representatives. Gwynneth Flower, chief executive of CENTEC in Central London, said she thought some TECs were tempted to set up their own training operations as colleges pulled out of poorly-funded Youth Training schemes.
Mr Troth said TECs were also concerned about colleges competing with them by contracting out training provision to private providers.
"It is not a fair competition, because while a TEC is paid on average around Pounds 1,700 a year to support a trainee the colleges get between Pounds 2,000 and Pounds 3,000," he said.
Ruth Gee, chief executive of the Assocation for Colleges, responded by asking "Where is the evidence that this is happening?", and she called for clarification of the role of TECs in the sector.
"Colleges are not frightened of competition. They have demonstrated quite well that they are able to handle it. What they are concerned about is an apparent blurring by TECs of the distinction between training providers and purchasers."