If ever there was a time to be excited by what further education has to offer, then this - the start of the academic year 2014-15 - is it.
As the economy emerges blinking into the light of recovery, millions of adults are keen to reskill themselves for the jobs that are becoming available. They should be looking to FE.
At the same time, rising university tuition fees - up to pound;9,000 in some cases - are forcing young people and their families into a process of cost-benefit analysis. In a great many cases, the higher education sector has been deemed a bad investment.
A third of HE students in England say that the value for money offered by their degree course is "poor" or "very poor", according to a recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute and the Higher Education Academy (bit.lyHEPI2014). The 15,000 respondents reported that they have, on average, just 10 extra minutes a week with lecturers despite the hike in fees since 2012. An entire generation no longer sees university as the automatic next step and they are casting about for viable alternatives. They should be looking to FE.
But few adult learners or students seem to give serious consideration to the sector. This is because FE has been burdened with an image problem for decades. It is an unfair impression but it has stuck. And it causes problems in student recruitment, staff morale and funding.
None of these is critical. As anyone working in the sector will tell you, it does just fine as it is, thank you very much. This is not a crisis; it is a missed opportunity.
The perception problem
It is hard to pin down specific issues with FE's reputation. This is because, on the face of it, little is wrong. What's more, the criticisms and myths that surround the sector can be swiftly rebutted with hard facts.
For example, FE has repeatedly been associated with bogus colleges, those fake institutions established solely to enable foreign nationals to gain student visas and work illegally in the UK. This has led to the notion that FE can damage the local economy. In fact, the sector employs 139,000 people, runs 1,300 businesses that are open to the public, creates a skilled workforce for businesses to draw from and, in many areas, forms the bedrock of the local community.
FE teaching is also regularly subject to unfair attacks, particularly by politicians. "Labour is unapologetic in seeking higher standards in vocational education and training," Stephen Twigg said in May 2013, when he was shadow education secretary. "We would be relentless in driving up the quality of teaching in further education, particularly in English and maths."
Yet FE provides 31 per cent of all HE entrants, delivers 85 per cent of all Higher National Certificates and has a completion rate of 85 per cent.
Perhaps the most damaging image problem that FE has, however, is its apparent invisibility. For decades, it has been seen as a second choice for children and the last choice for adults. Few understand what it is for, what it does and how it works. But the sector trains 3 million people each year. If it is hiding, it is doing a bad job of it.
Looking at these facts, it is easy to see how FE can tell itself that it doesn't have a problem. And at a local level, at least, there is little to counteract that view.
"We have an extremely strong brand locally," says Richard Atkins, principal of Exeter College and the new president of the Association of Colleges (AoC). "We work hard to create it, with distinctive, recognisable buildings, links with local employers and the vigorous advocacy of our alumni."
But Atkins recognises that something is amiss with the sector's reputation nationally. "It does often feel as though we are fighting against the negative perception that people have of the sector as a whole," he says. " `Brand FE' may not be a hindrance but it's certainly not a help."
I heard the same story in FE colleges up and down the UK: our college is great - not exactly in spite of the national brand, but certainly not because of it.
Clearly, that national brand needs to work harder, not least because of the opportunities it is missing. FE may be doing well despite the negative connotations, but how much better could it be doing without them?
According to Michele Sutton, former chief executive of Bradford College and the outgoing president of the AoC, the more acute issue is that the positive messages about FE are not getting through to those who hold the purse strings.
"When the government gave us the present of a 17.5 per cent cut in funding for 18-year-olds last Christmas, we were all taken aback," she says. "It was just the latest in a series of cuts to the FE sector. The problem in the past was that we didn't always fight back against them, but we did unite on this occasion and demonstrate the good work that the sector does. That put us in a far better place to argue against further damaging cuts."
Clearly, FE's branding problems have direct consequences. No college principal will admit it publicly but many are presiding over institutions with falling student numbers. Consequently they have to cope with dwindling revenues and tough decisions. FE has a great story to tell but not enough people are listening.
So what can be done? The first step in rebuilding a brand is understanding what caused the weaknesses. Here, there is no single reason. There are historical causes, some rooted in the negative perception of vocational training in the UK, others associated with the problems that dogged the old technical colleges in the post-war years.
Then there is misinformation. "To watch the news you would think that most 17- and 18-year-olds were doing A-levels," Exeter College principal Atkins says. "In fact, that is far from the case." (In 2012, only 43 per cent of 17-year-olds in England were studying for A-levels.)
FE is an undeniably large and unwieldy sector that has grown piecemeal over the decades. It is hard to define, and as colleges meet local needs and draw in students and revenue from wherever they can, the sector suffers by trying to be all things to all people.
The good news is that none of these problems is insurmountable. What has prevented the sector from tackling them and building a stronger brand is a lack of desire. For too long it has looked at others, arguing that the problem is with their perception, failing to understand that the sector itself must work to change that perception. For too long, individuals in FE have comforted themselves that they have a strong local brand, so a weak national brand is not their problem.
David Moir, deputy principal at Basingstoke College of Technology, says that FE must now help itself. "When tuition fees came in, we expected them to put people off HE and for us to benefit," he says. "But in actual fact the reverse happened. The HE sector has done a great job of making the case that a university degree improves career prospects and lifetime earnings. We need to do something similar."
The sector has been complacent about its problems. It is time to change how it faces up to them.
Establishing how a rebrand should happen is tricky. I have spent a large part of my career branding institutions, from retail to financial services, from universities to publishers. My clients - just like FE - always have multiple customers, employees and shareholders, and each of those stakeholder groups has specific needs.
What I have learned is that branding organisations is not like branding a product. Yet all too often organisations approach the task as if they were advertising a soap powder. People frequently apply product-branding techniques to institutional environments. They look for hard features - unique selling propositions - that can be evidenced. This is ineffective and ultimately damaging. Rebranding the FE sector requires a dramatically different approach.
I call this approach "brand texture". It is about understanding how a brand makes people feel and the emotional bias with which they engage. The way they feel about something influences their behaviour - we develop and identify the key elements that make up those feelings.
The first element is the big idea that expresses a higher purpose. This is the throwaway line or concept that people remember and can build an association around. This is of little value in itself, but it gives people something to hold on to, and to which they can begin to attach ideas, values and associations. Good examples are Louis Vuitton's maxim "luxuriously accentuate the journey of life" or FedEx's "deliver peace of mind to everyday interactions".
The second element of a brand's texture is the narrative. This is the underlying story and tone that runs through everything it does. It is determined by the big idea. So for Kingston University, the idea we developed was: "The world in which you are born does not have to be the world in which you live." Every piece of communication and branding and every decision had to be underpinned by that statement.
The final two elements are the visual language and the user experience, which make what you say believable. Visual language is what makes up an organisation's corporate identity beyond, but including, the logo. So colours, fonts, imagery, tone of voice and word layout. User experience is everything from the lessons taught to the politeness of the canteen staff.
These four strands of brand texture can only come together after a process of diving deeply into people's beliefs and listening to the sector's various stakeholders. Do people feel FE is a support, not a front-line service? Do they feel it is for other people, not themselves or their children? Do they feel it is unimportant simply because they have never personally experienced it?
These feelings are based in habitual thinking patterns that may be right or wrong. That is unimportant. What matters is that they exist and are therefore real. It is these deep belief systems - people's emotional biases - that we need to change, rather than trying to alter functional aspects of the FE system. We need to explore and define who we're talking to and where we want to get to.
For this market, it is not the customers who are the target audience but the influencers - the media and the politicians.
Finally, the idea needs to have an impact and create emotion. In order to challenge deep-rooted perceptions, it needs to be memorable and capable of influencing behaviour.
So how should this look for FE? My suggestion is a rebrand based around the big idea of "turning a nation on". This is an idea that makes people stop and rethink their beliefs. It transmits the passion of the people who work in this sector, captures the immediacy and impact of what they do and demonstrates the national, not just local, impact that it has. This is about being modern, being relevant and ultimately being transformative.
The narrative that sits below this big idea would work at both a macro and micro level. It is about igniting people's personal potential (firing brains into action) so that the country can grow and shine at a national level (firing up connections with businesses and commerce).
Creating a brand such as this usually takes between three and five years. But as we have seen, the potential benefits for FE are vast. A strong brand would enable it to push back against funding cuts, to get more students through the doors, to build even stronger links with business and to help millions more people realise their true potential. It would require a coherent effort, with everyone in FE pushing for the same end result, and it would require increased self-monitoring to ensure the user experience always matched the overall branding.
But now is the time to act. With the general election less than a year away, the skills agenda is important to politicians in every party. Many would need little convincing of the necessity of building a stronger FE brand.
FE is a great product. The fact that not everyone realises this should be the greatest incentive for FE to do everything it can to change its image. From the quality and passion of the people working within it to the countless success stories it can point to, FE has a great story to tell - it just needs to start telling it.
Richard Gillingwater is director of brand strategy at creative communications agency Accrue Fulton. He works with commercial and educational organisations and regularly delivers lectures and talks on branding, communication, design and creativity across Europe
`What would happen if we had a strong, inspiring identity?'
Martin Dickson, head of marketing at Leeds City College, gives his view on "Brand FE"
I would agree that there is confusion around the brand and it is hardly surprising. Some of the people who make the decisions in these organisations tend not to go into FE and their children don't either.
However, this doesn't cause a problem for us at Leeds City College because we have built a strong brand locally. People go into jobs in the area and talk proudly about their time at the college and what it did for them.
But I do wonder what could be achieved if we were to invest in creating a national brand, as that is where FE seems to have a problem.
Rather than the sector having little effect or even a detrimental effect on the hard work we do at a local level, what would happen if people knew what FE stood for and what it achieves? What would happen if we had that strong, inspiring identity that we could take to a potential corporate partner? How much sponsorship could we gain? How much more could we help people if we could access that sort of external funding?
We achieve so much already. I could produce a book's worth of stories. To give you an idea of the diversity, over the past year we have had great success with our 14+ Apprenticeship Academy where pupils who are not coping well in a conventional school setting come to the college to complete their GCSE Year 10 and 11 studies in a vocational setting.
At the other end of the spectrum, just this week I met a young lad who came to this country at the age of 7 from a desperate situation in Angola. He attended our college and is now preparing to start university. He was one of the young people here, but 32,000 of our 40,000 learners are adults. These are people who see FE as the route to a new life and a new career.
It's not easy to create a brand for FE. I can't think of any organisation with a wider product base and potential audience than we have, but it can be done. We need to find a way to persuade people to fundamentally reassess the way they see FE, to get a sense of the excitement and pride felt by those of us who live it, day in, day out. If we could find a way to convey that, just imagine what we could achieve.