Effective marketing – rather than over-reliance on financial incentives for students – is the best long-term solution to increasing numbers at 16-18 in a sustainable way.

The introduction and withdrawal of Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) has hit the sector hard. The student subsidy was part of the furniture, quietly holding up recruitment of school-leavers while colleges turned their attention to improving demand in other areas.

Colleges need not take it for granted that life after EMA should mean accepting reduced numbers”

Against this background, it is understandable that demand for 16-18 began to be taken somewhat for granted – leaving colleges exposed. Many colleges have found a drop in numbers of more than 10 per cent as they assess the damage to this year’s intake.

Yet colleges need not take it for granted that life after EMA should mean accepting reduced numbers. Nor should the demographic changes reported in FE Week be regarded as the basis for accepting defeat.

There are plenty of people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) to go for and, as most colleges acknowledge, plenty of 16 year-olds being wrongly herded away from vocational education. My own work with colleges has proved that, far from stopping the rot, they can still significantly increase demand.

Each college has its market conditions to respond to – but here are some key aspects to look at.

Strategy

Colleges must develop a clear marketing strategy, reflected in an implementation plan which is fully understood by all those involved, not just by those who work in the marketing department. In too many cases, the marketing plan, if it exists, is buried inside the college’s wider business plan and its contents are just as much of a mystery.

Process

Marketing is as much about how you serve your customers as about how many walk into the shop. Colleges must ensure they have the capacity to quickly handle applications and course inquiries. It is not morally or commercially acceptable to leave potentially vulnerable young people waiting to be satisfied as the result of inadequate internal processes.

Targeting

While schools and parents will always have a role, it is important that your messages are also directly transmitted to young people so they can be encouraged to independently consider the merits of FE without those messages being distorted by mediators who may have another agenda.

Budget control

Be clear about what proportion of your marketing resources (both cash and staff time) are to be devoted to driving 16-18 demand. Transmit this information to your managers and ensure their expectations are managed accordingly. Meeting all internal ad-hoc requests for marketing support will inevitably undermine the execution of the strategy.

Product

Remember that your product is more than simply the prospect of one or two more years in education – which is not, of itself, the most enticing proposition for everyone. Colleges are about the realisation of people’s personal and career aspirations. Ensure that your messaging, channels of communication and language reflect this.

After school, and leaving aside the call individuals may have on the NHS, the further education sector offers by far the most exciting proposition free at the point of use in the public sector.

With this intrinsic value, there is no doubt that colleges with falling numbers can turn things around – but not if they continue with the approaches which failed them this year.

Steve Hook, Communications Consultant, stevehook@hookcommunications.co.uk