Here’s the scenario: you’ve got five minutes with the prime minister, the chancellor or an influential employer. What do you say about colleges? What’s your overall message? What is the one thing you want them to take away from the five minutes?
How do you convey the passion, focus, frustrations, barriers and challenges that colleges embody? How can you communicate the opportunities, hopes, ambitions and empowerment that colleges unleash in their students? How do you get across the vital roles that colleges play? And, ultimately, what can you say that will lead to a better future for colleges and their students?
It’s not an unrealistic scenario and in a spending review year with so much uncertainty in the context of the pandemic, it’s probably more important than ever that anyone with any chance of bending the PM’s ear has thought it through. History is vague about who first said it takes longer to prepare shorter speeches, but they were right. US president Woodrow Wilson famously said: “It depends. If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation; if 15 minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.” That five minutes really does need careful thought and planning.
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It’s tricky, though. Five minutes is not much time and whilst colleges and education might be foremost in your mind all the time, for others with wider remits, there are plenty of other distractions. There are also thousands of other people trying to have their own five minutes to press their case, so the trick is not simply to be eloquent but to get them to notice.
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There are broadly three tracks to take in structuring your five minutes. The human story, the facts and figures or a combination. Some homework on the target is vital here to find out what might work best but it is often difficult to know, making the combination approach the safest. There is also the important question of whether anything on paper is shared – facts, graphs, picture, stories, links and so on. This works well for sharing with the officials who might be asked to follow up the issue you have raised, and sometimes a picture really does say a thousand words.
So, we’re clear that preparation is important and finding out more about the person you are trying to persuade. We’ve also thought about the broad approach and track to be taken. The next stage is to think about the central argument/s to be used. There are four types of argument that might help here – economic, social, political and fiscal.
The economic argument for colleges goes something like this: we have invested heavily in higher education over the past 30 years and seen a significant increase in the number of people with degrees. That is great, but we have not invested anywhere near like our competitor countries in technical education and skills, and our business success and productivity lags behind because of it. Thriving colleges across the country can support employers to get the skills they need to innovate, improve productivity and be more successful. Brexit has heightened this need, with more employers struggling to find people with the skills they need to run their businesses. Investing in colleges is essential to plug those gaps.
Then there is the social argument. This is about fairness and inclusion. It goes a bit like this. The family you grow up in is the most important factor in how well you are likely to do in education. Disadvantaged children are less likely to achieve good GCSEs and will either take longer to progress in learning post-16 or will leave with lower level qualifications. They are then more likely to earn less than their advantaged peers who go onto university. Investing in colleges means supporting the work and life chances of the most disadvantaged in society. It means giving enough for everyone to progress so that they can find good work and have successful careers.
The political argument is trickier because it is important to steer clear of party politics, and certainly staying politically neutral. But that is not to say it should be avoided. Opinion polling shows that large numbers and groups of voters want to see more investment in colleges and technical education. Significant numbers of voters want to see opportunities for their children and for adults to improve their skills. Colleges are critical for delivering that. So, it is acceptable to suggest that investing in colleges would be a vote winner – for any party, of any colour.
The fiscal argument is vital in showing that there is a guaranteed return on investment for the Treasury. Why else would they invest? This is where the research and analysis needs to be honed down to some killer facts. Who benefits from education and skills investment? In what ways? What is the return to the individual, to employers, to the community and to the taxpayer? It’s important not to fall into the trap that it is all about research findings, because many times I have seen government investment decisions driven by a theory of return on investment, not just facts.
So what would your pitch be with your five minutes – the emotional, the factual, the anecdote? How do you tell the story of our great colleges? What’s your line?
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges