Reputations matter. For all of us. My reputation drives whether or not people are willing to trust me with information, and whether I can call upon people and expect honesty. A reputation is, in many ways, the most important currency a journalist trades in.
It is the same for colleges, but the story is not as straightforward. Of course, colleges can ruin their own reputations; financial trouble, mismanagement and cultural issues are only some of the causes of crisis making headline news. It is common for colleges to still be mentioned, years later, as “X-college, where the principal left in 2015 over allegations of financial mismanagement”. But there are also crises over which colleges have no influence whatsoever – such as tragedies affecting students and staff outside college premises. The death of students is maybe the most common, and heartbreaking, example here.
And then there is also the reputation of the sector as a whole. Only a few weeks ago, we reported a speech by Further Education Trust for Leadership professor Martin Doel, who was highlighting the lack of a coherent definition for FE. Increasingly – and in particular recently, as the number of mergers with at least one financially struggling partner has increased – we have come to think of the sector as the Cinderella sector, as being broke and troubled.
Why does this matter? Because it isn’t what most colleges are. In the same way, colleges are not simply providers of second chances; for many learners, they are an excellent first chance and the best opportunity out there.
Unless the sector can build a reputation centred on success and excellence, it will always be seen as “for other people’s children”. It will never be a first option in the way that universities are. And it will remain an easy target for politicians keen to score an easy win through yet more ill-thought-through reform.
The sector is better than that – and it needs to get better at letting people know.