Supplier-based courses can be prohibitivelyexpensive for both students and IT professionals. But that will change as exam boards start to include supplier-related courses on syllabuses, writes Bill Goodwin.
Employers have long been campaigning for further education colleges to offer courses in Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco and other suppliers' systems alongside more academic IT courses.
That message has now begun to filter through to examination boards, which are beginning to incorporate the syllabus of supplier-related courses into further education colleges.
The change, when it comes, will provide employers with qualified people who have management, communication and group working skills, plus the technical knowledge they need in their IT departments.
More importantly, it will open the way for more students and IT professionals to gain supplier-based qualifications - such as the Microsoft certified systems engineer certificate - which are currently only available through expensive private-sector training.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the standards watchdog for academic qualifications, has been pushing forward this change for the past 12 months, as it responds to a new remit to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of employers.
Stirling Wood, principal officer for IT at the QCA, believes the changes will make supplier qualifications affordable for more people. In particular, he says, they will encourage more small firms to ensure their staff receive proper IT training.
"It is hard enough for small employers to free up people to go to class one day a week. Having staff out of work for even a short time can be costly, and if you have to pay for expensive training on top of that, that will put many employers off."
OCR was the first examination board to follow the QCA's new approach. It incorporated Microsoft Office specialist content into its Clait qualification, which covers user skills in spreadsheets, word processing and databases, last year.
Further qualifications for programmers and systems engineers will follow.
"We are developing a whole suite of new qualifications for IT professionals. Our ambition is to incorporate five different supplier qualifications," says Gerry O'Keeffe, OCR's marketing manager.
City and Guilds has integrated its courses with the Microsoft Office specialist qualification. It has also collaborated with Comptia, the industry body which oversees the popular Aplus network qualification.
The board launched a systems support diploma incorporating Aplus last week, which allows schools and colleges to offer training at half the commercial rates.
Employers are enthusiastic about the new diploma, says Matthew Poyidagi, regional director of Comptia. "They like it. It is largely because employers recognise what Aplus is. Some use it as a hiring standard. Others use it as a development tool.
"The real key is that it offers one route of learning for two qualifications: a national qualification and a professional qualification. It gives students in the academic arena access to previously unaffordable exams."
The QCA plans to make supplier-based training a key part of NVQs - used by many employers to underpin schemes such as the Modern Apprenticeship programme. It has commissioned E-Skills UK, the public-private partnership for IT training, to consult with employers and to develop the idea.
"One of the major advantages is that it gives a mechanism for technical skills to be combined with wider skills, working with customers and problem solving in a real environment," says Chris Morrow, standards manager at E-Skills UK.
"People will be able to show not only that they have the knowledge but that they can apply the knowledge."
These plans will eventually make it possible for IT professionals to update their supplier qualifications in local further education colleges, or through subsidised work-based apprenticeship schemes, at a fraction of the cost of completing the training privately.
The idea will prove particularly attractive to contractors, who must pay to keep their skills up to date but are prevented under the IR35 tax rules from offsetting the full cost of their training against tax.
It is also likely to prove popular with small businesses, which can rarely afford to send their IT staff on private sector training courses.