Some say it is a source of pride, while others say it has become ill-defined and devalued. Regardless of which view is right and which is wrong, the use of the word ‘college’ is sparking debate in the further education (FE) sector.

This academic year, West Nottinghamshire College became the latest FE institute to rebrand without the word ‘college’ in its title.

The college made the change on September 1 to publicly be known as Vision West Notts and it will continue to phase in the new identity over the next 12 months.

Louise Knott, Director of Communication, Marketing and Learner Engagement at Vision West Notts, said the rebrand is designed to reflect the diversity of their services.

She said: “We are a large employer, a £50 million business, an exceptional college and training provider and run successful subsidiary companies such as bksb, Safety Plus and Vision Apprentices.

“Our new identity reflects the entirety of what we do.”

“This is not about devaluing the word ‘college’ and in fact, we still refer to ourselves as a college in literature targeted at our students.”

Vision West Notts is still legally known as West Nottinghamshire College and has not entered the legal process needed to change its name.

Miss Knott said they are not looking to devalue the term ‘college’ in any way.

She said: “We are immensely proud of being a strong college and our principal is a powerful advocate for the colleges’ sector on the national stage.

“This is not about devaluing the word ‘college’ and in fact, we still refer to ourselves as a college in literature targeted at our students.”

Miss Knott said students and staff feel “very proud” to be a part of the college’s new image, which she believes is partly because of the new names subtlety.

“Many local people, particularly students, already refer to us simply as West Notts.

“Therefore from an identity point of view, we felt it was important to retain this in our name,” she said.

However, David Shuttleworth, Head of Learner Recruitment and Directorate for Curriculum and Innovation at Petroc, believes the term ‘college’ is “a bit ill-defined and devalued.”

Petroc changed its name following a merger between North Devon College and East Devon College in 2008.

The new identity came about because some of the funding North Devon College received from the Learning and Skills Council was ring-fenced for rebranding.

Mr Shuttleworth, who managed the rebranding process, said he was aware many schools in his local area were starting to use the word ‘college’ in their names.

He said: “The word ‘college’ is used so widely that it’s become a bit ill-defined and devalued.

“We’re clearly differentiated from the competition and that’s increasingly important in a crowded, competitive marketplace.”

The rebrand was initially seen as controversial and received a huge reaction on newspaper and social networking websites initially.

“Our research shows that there are signification issues with the term college”

However, the college later won two Transform Awards for the rebranding project in 2010.

As such, Mr Shuttleworth said the new image has been “liberating” for Petroc.

He said: “Together with the rebranded identity, the name allows us to present ourselves as the inspiring, bright, challenging organisation that we know we are.”

Ben Verinder, Communications Director at the Association of Colleges (AoC), believes there is a significant amount of confusion regarding the use of the term “college”.

Research conducted by AoC and ICM Research this year has shown just under 75 per cent of the general public think Trinity College Cambridge, part of Cambridge University, is a further education college.

“I wonder whether that (confusion) has been influencing colleges’ decision to change what they’re referenced as,” Ben said.

He also stressed many principals and members of AoC still believe the term “college” has value.

He said: “It’s an on-going debate.

“Even though all of our research shows that there are signification issues with the term college, it is still actually a valuable marker and therefore it’s still got quite a lot going for it – even though the general public has some confusion about it.”

NCG, which comprises of Newcastle College, West Lancashire College and the Intraining Group, has taken a different approach altogether.

The organisation rebranded their trading arm in 2009, and chose the word NCG because it “represented and reflected all three divisions.”

Unlike Petroc and Vision West Notts however, NCG decided to retain the original titles for each of their three educational providers.

This is because NCG believes students still respect and identity the branding of each individual FE provider, including the use of the term ‘college’.

Caroline Anderson, Head of Communication at NCG said: “We serve thousands of learners and employers each year through our three highly successful divisions.

“Learners choose to come to either one of our colleges or Intraining based on the excellent reputation that each division has built independently.”

Caroline said that NCG wouldn’t consider changing the name of Newcastle College or West Lancashire College in the future.

She added: “NCG is a unique organisation within the education sector and steers the strategic direction of the group.

“It is recognised on a national platform and combines the strength and expertise that exists across the three divisions.”

Petroc, NCG and Vision West Notts have taken vastly different approaches to their branding, and have also chosen to drop the word ‘college’ in contrasting and often unorthodox ways.

In tough economic times FE providers will continue to look at how they can differentiate themselves from their competitors – including name changes and branding.

The effect that this is having on the term ‘college’ and its perception both to students and professionals in the sector remains unclear.

What is clear however is that the word ‘college’ is no longer being used coherently in the education sector.

This begs the question – what’s in a name?