A college has been snapped touting for students right outside a rival’s campus – enflaming tensions sparked by a recent merger.

Sunderland College’s advertising van, emblazoned with the words “Sure you’ve made the right choice? It’s not too late to change your mind”, was parked at a junction outside the main campus of its neighbour East Durham College on Thursday morning.

Sunderland merged with Hartlepool Sixth Form College just a few weeks ago, stoking fears that competition to recruit FE learners in the region would become increasingly aggressive.

East Durham’s principal Suzanne Duncan told FE Week that she was “really disappointed” by the van’s appearance outside her college.

Sunderland College however insisted that it had been parked there by mistake.

“An error was made by a member of staff and this is not a practice that the college endorses,” she said. “When were made aware we moved the van.”

Both colleges took part in the north-east area review, which ended in February.

The ensuing report recommended they both stayed independent, albeit “working with neighbouring colleges on a collaborative curriculum offer and participating in shared service company”.

But Sunderland opened a consultation on a proposed partnership with Hartlepool SFC before this report ever even saw the light of day.

That plan came as a surprise to many, as Hartlepool had come out of the Tees Valley area review with a proposal to merge with its closer neighbour, Hartlepool College, and FE Week has been unable to find anyone to explain the rationale.

Even Darren Hankey, Hartlepool College’s principal, admitted to FE Week that he had no idea what prompted the SFC’s change of heart.

A report by the SFC commissioner Peter Mucklow, who visited Hartlepool SFC in March after it was hit with a financial notice to improve, noted that there had been a “lack of progress” on the proposed merger between the two Hartlepool providers, and urged the SFC to take “decisive action”.

“Hartlepool Sixth Form College should proceed with the proposed merger with Sunderland College as a matter of urgency,” he wrote.

But the revised plan upset both Mr Hankey and Ms Duncan, who argued that a merger between two colleges in different areas would increase competition for learners – even though the area reviews had been established to encourage providers to work together.

They insisted that the area reviews had been designed to rationalise provision, especially given the decline in the number of teenagers in the area, which already had a crowded post-16 market, particularly in Hartlepool.

Sunderland’s principal Ellen Thinnesen told FE Week at the time that the merger decision would be taken in the best interests of the college.

“Any decision relating to merger with a neighbouring college will be strongly informed by Sunderland College’s resolute position on ensuring maximum value for public investment, greater specialisation – in this case sixth form provision, reduction in duplication, and most importantly keeping the needs of all young people at the forefront of decision making,” she said.

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  1. Common enough mistake to park up a huge advertising van outside a rival college’s campus. Happens all the time I’m sure, especially with a message clearly designed to entice students to leave. Some colleges have no shame

  2. Jane Brown

    This is a result of government funding cuts where every learner counts on terms of pounds and pence. It is now quantity not quality in FE pack em in and cut the teaching hours. Just give em a qualifications not a skill for life.

  3. A rep for an advertising agency recently proposed a similar strategy for one of my clients and offered examples of where colleges had successfully used this strategy.
    My view was that it broke the spirit of what the last FE Commissioner had commented on in terms of college competition.
    I also felt it was likely to raise the issues we see here. But more than this I felt it was a crude and expensive way to waste taxpayers money. It is very easy to market to disaffected students during their first week at college with, for example, highly targeted low cost advertising that no principal will ever see due to marketings ability to target very specific age groups and geographies online. No one shouts about this as it’s hidden. The exact same wording is often used!
    Let’s have no illusions about this. It is going on in more colleges than not … and is often prompted by that last extra marketing push that colleges all try for.
    One solution might be for FE marketing to be undertaken as a shared service between a group of providers in a geographic area …. but for many reasons this will never happen.

  4. Shame on you

    Disgraceful journalism FE Week ! This story is full of inaccuracies about the merger and you have not even bothered to look in to it fully, simply taking the word of those who are bitter that the merger went ahead without their approval.