Universities don’t bid a final farewell to their students — the world of higher education alumni bodies is a well-populated one that brings its own rewards. It’s about time FE colleges jumped on board, says Iain Mackinnon.

Why would a college bother to make links with its alumni? Professional fundraisers in universities sometimes contrast their sharp focus with what they see as the rather woolly alternative of ‘friend-raising’, as though the only reason to connect with former students is to take money off them.

I suspect that mentality has held us back a bit in colleges, but I now see encouraging signs of action from colleges which have realised that alumni offer them far more than a rather hazy glimpse of modest donations.

Take Sheffield College, for example. It features a number of former students in an excellent promotional video using their enthusiasm for their old college to attract new students.

Or Leeds College of Music — now part of the Leeds College Group — which has dozens of pen portraits on its website of former students now well-launched on their careers, to inspire and inform current students.

Or Moulton College — Northamptonshire’s land-based college — which connects recent alumni and current students through a structured mentoring programme.

What connects them is a focus on recent alumni, and on immediate benefits to current students.

In my own college, I have drawn attention to Dora Rudolf who joined us to learn English, went on to do a cabin crew course, and has now landed a job with Emirates.

I want her to come back to inspire and excite the next group of cabin crew students (and to pass on tips about the latest practice to her tutors), and I’d love her to go into an Esol class, too, to show students that it is realistic to aim for a good job after the course.

At long last it does look like colleges are finding ways to convert what has long been strong latent interest into action”

And, if we keep up the relationship, I hope Dora will open the door for work experience places with Emirates, and for her, or a colleague, to advise us on our curriculum.

But when I surveyed the scene two years ago, I found very little alumni activity in colleges.

Beyond a few examples in Scotland (which is always worth a look for English colleges seeking inspiration), and some sixth form colleges building on old boys’ and old girls’ associations, the greatest activity was in residential colleges, both those serving students with special needs, and land-based colleges.

We now have two organisations offering professionally packaged alumni solutions to colleges, other colleges getting going with their own home-grown initiatives, and a workshop on alumni relations at next month’s Association of Colleges (AoC) conference for communications professionals.

To say the issue is ‘taking FE by storm’ would be going too far, but at long last it does look like colleges are finding ways to convert what has long been strong latent interest into action.

Think Alumni exhibited at last year’s AoC annual conference and has signed up a dozen or so colleges, from New College Nottingham to East Kent, by offering them a ready-made package. Visit www.thinkalumni.com for more details.

And Future First is a charity originally set up to reconnect recent former students with their old schools, so they get the same kind of face-to-face advice on careers that pupils at private schools get. The need is identical in colleges, so I’m pleased that it has now extended its work to include us. Visit www.futurefirst.org.uk for more details.

Further useful resources can be found through the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (www.case.org), Giving To Colleges (www.givingtocolleges.org) and the FE Fundraising and Alumni (www.jiscmail.ac.uk/FEFUNDRAISINGANDALUMNI) discussion group.

To a great extent this is unchartered territory for Britain’s colleges. I have been trying to understand what we can learn from universities and from US community colleges, who are slightly ahead of us.

We have a lot to learn, but we are in the learning business and there is a growing college community of interest to learn from. The prize for our students is great if we get this right.

So why would a college bother to make links with its alumni? To help its current students, of course.

Iain Mackinnon is a governor of Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College. He will be chairing a session on ‘Developing successful alumni relations’ at the AoC Communications Conference on Wednesday, March 20.