‘Fill your classrooms and don’t spend money on marketing to compete with neighbouring colleges,’ FE Commissioner tells principals

Too few learners per classroom and marketing strategies that pit college against neighbouring college are among the issues preventing the sector from being “sustainable”, according to FE Commissioner Dr David Collins.

In a letter to all chairs and principals of FE institutions, dated October 30, Dr Collins said that, with the sector as a whole having posted an annual deficit “for the first time since incorporation”, there were still “major efficiencies” that institutions could make as the government’s area reviews of post-16 education and training get underway.

“More funding in the sector would of course be welcomed and the proposed new apprenticeship levy offers significant opportunities but there are still major efficiencies to be made in existing institutions as the intervention process over the last two years has clearly demonstrated,” wrote Dr Collins.

“Class sizes remain low in many colleges and well below the 16-20 average range necessary to ensure a college’s ongoing viability; there are considerable differences in the amount of time and money spent on management and support services and significant resources are used on competitive marketing – one college against another – rather than on marketing the real opportunities that colleges as a whole can offer to learners and employers.”

“The area review process is now under way with a view to addressing these issues and creating a more sustainable sector.”

The letter comes after the government announced money-saving plans for colleges to get 16-year-old vocational learners into apprenticeships after a year, as revealed by FE Week.

But while funding concerns were a “major driving factor” behind area reviews, they were “not only a way of encouraging colleges to tackle the problem of reduced funding collectively,” said Dr Collins, adding that he expected every area of the country to have undergone or be undergoing a review by March 2017.

They were also, he said, “an opportunity for the sector to take stock, refocusing colleges on the needs of the economy and ensuring they become the local and regional hubs of professional, technical and vocational education”.

To do this, said Dr Collins, more colleges should move into “higher level skills” and in some cases become “more specialised in what they offer, working closely with the LEPs and local authorities that will increasingly steer the skills system at the local level as devolution deals come into play”.

While there is “no blueprint for what might happen in a particular area”, Dr Collins outlined a number of ways in which colleges could develop a “new collaborative approach”.

These include creating larger colleges “through mergers or federations”, “greater curriculum specialisation” and “curriculum rationalisation”, more sharing of expertise, staff development and back office services across colleges, and better use of technology.

The government has so far announced seven areas involved in the first wave of its review of post-16 education and training.

The first group of area reviews to be announced on September 8 covered 22 FE colleges and 16 sixth form colleges (SFCs) in Birmingham and Solihull, Greater Manchester, and Sheffield. The second group, announced on September 25, involved 21 FE colleges and 13 SFCs in the Tees Valley, Sussex Coast and Solent regions. A review of seven general FE colleges and four SFCs in West Yorkshire was announced on October 16.

Dr Collins revealed some of his early findings from the area reviews last month at the Higher and Further Education Show at London’s Excel.



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5 Comments

  1. My experience of successfully increasing college numbers through my consultancy work is that you can achieve the desired outcomes quite reliably, without aggressively attacking neighbouring colleges.

    Of course, it is true that colleges which use effective approaches will to some extent increase numbers at the expense of those that don’t, but this tends to be marginal.

    David Collins makes an interesting point though.

    Typically an individual college can expect an uplift of 10 to 45 per
    cent in its application rate through clear strategic approaches to marketing.

    Some cooperation between colleges and other types of provider, perhaps regionally, would enable us to dramatically improve the efficiency of marketing and spread the effectiveness of these approaches to benefit the wider-16 sector.

    Good comprehensive IAG in schools would also help matters – but that’s another story.

    • How about closing down small school sixth forms which have been allowed to start up in close proximity to established sixth form college? Many of these new school sixth forms are tiny and subsidised from the rest of the school budget. What a total waste of money – and highly destabilising for colleges.

  2. Graham Hoyle OBE

    A clearer view of what FE really is and the different key elements within it is needed. This should then be collectively marketed to its various customers by local groupings of specialist providers offering complementary services. I seem to recall that the Foster report of a decade ago criticised colleges for trying to deliver everything. A few manage this but most did not heed the warning and are now in or about to be in real trouble.
    Most independents focus on employer facing offerings (not just apprenticeships) more accurately following ( and leading) the political priorities. Some of the larger ones also spread themselves too thinly on occasion.
    The FE of the future needs to be clear about its role and deliver and market it through local groupings of autonomous specialist providers with a high level of business/financial acumen. Private, voluntary and college providers.

  3. In his FE Week opinion piece, Andy Wilson makes some great responses to David Collins’ letter telling FE colleges to stop spending on marketing to compete with each other.

    However, for many colleges there is another dimension to this issue as well.
    Much of our marketing is aimed at telling pupils in schools that there are other options for them at age sixteen, other than staying on in their school sixth form.

    While sixth form evidently works for lots of the 33% of 16-18s who go there, there is a solid strata of individuals who are encouraged to stay on for A Levels or less-well-resourced vocational provision in school, only to leave after a year and then join a vocational course or apprenticeship provided by a college with specialist staff and facilities, on which they flourish.

    But first, these students often experience disappointment, waste a year of their lives and (least of all) waste a year of tax-payers funding staying on at school. This is due often to a lack of independent careers advice, to local colleges not being allowed access to talk to pupils, and to government rhetoric which has often focused on the academic route.

    In response, colleges use more overt and expensive marketing techniques to try to reach out to young people who would benefit from vocational education and rapid routes to work it provides, when proper careers advice and access to pupils would enable them to ‘fill their classrooms’ much more efficiently.

    As in the Area Review process as a whole, Dr. Collins’ letter and argument miss out a huge aspect of the challenge of delivering the right mix of post-16 education.