The news that John Lewis has had another year of significant redundancies offers important lessons for colleges and for the government. John Lewis and other high street department stores have long been trusted and are household names which share a simple goal with colleges: to meet the needs of a very wide group of people through a broad range of products and services. John Lewis, Marks & Spencer, Selfridges and Harrods grew their brands on the back of excellent customer service with the promise that customers could find just about anything they wanted under one roof. They became trusted for the quality and range of what they offered, and they thrived on every high street. Many colleges did likewise within their communities.
In recent years, though, department store performance has faltered as they struggled to adapt to the challenges from internet retailers and it remains to be seen how they will fare. Now that the internet can offer quite literally every product ever produced, the once-unique offer of the department store is not quite as appealing. Watching the responses to that challenge is fascinating as they try to reinvent their brand and discover a new and compelling offer to customers; and most pertinently, an offer which cannot rely on being the lowest price.
Now, colleges are not quite like department stores, I know, but there are some parallels. Colleges often do have a "department store offer" – for all ages from 14 (and even lower in their childcare centres), at all levels of learning (leisure and entry-level to postgraduate and everything in between), in all sorts of settings (classrooms, lecture halls, workshops, studios, salons, kitchens, on-line, workplaces) and for people with diverse needs and wants.
Convincing and compelling
Much like department stores, colleges have struggled to develop a convincing and compelling brand nationally. It’s that failure to develop a national brand which has seen successive governments simply ignore the needs and underinvest in the potential of colleges. Funding protection for schools and increases for universities have been watched enviously as college funding has been cut.
At a local level, however, both colleges and department stores do have good reputations, seen clearly when a closure or major change is announced. More positively, colleges are viewed as vital parts of the infrastructure by public, private and third sector partners and by people from across the local community. On my recent trips to Dudley, Barnsley, Fareham, Glasgow, Nelson, Cardiff and many others, the college is a prominent feature of the regeneration and success of a city or town centre, a physical manifestation of optimism, opportunity and the glue between the people and local industry.
Colleges are major employers in their own rights, and as such make a direct as well as indirect economic as well as social impact. Their local partners understand how central they are to local economic development and to making sure that the benefits of that development are widely felt. I’ve yet to meet a member of parliament who is not a great advocate for their local college and who doesn’t want to see "their" college flourish.
A diverse proposition
The shame is that this local reputation has not translated onto the national stage in the way it needs to. Perhaps that’s because unlike department stores, the college proposition is much more diverse, reflecting the context it operates in? Walk into any John Lewis on the other hand and it will have the same look and offerings, whether it be in Cardiff or Leicester. Perhaps it’s because of the range of students and qualifications, unlike in schools and universities which offer, in the public view, a much simpler set of GCSEs, A levels and degrees? Colleges offer all of those, of course, and so much more as well.
The college brand matters now more than ever with a spending review due next year. Our national offer to the government is that colleges represent the only institutions which can deliver efficiently and effectively across all its priorities, including apprenticeships, T levels, more technical and professional education at higher levels, adult education, national retraining scheme, GCSEs, A levels, applied general and higher education degrees. The basic infrastructure needed for this already exists in colleges, with buildings, equipment, gear, technology, skilled and industry-current lecturers and employer relationships.
Why would the government invest elsewhere? Where else will it find the economies of scale and the efficiency of focus that colleges represent? How else will it be able to stretch scarce resources to deliver an ambitious post-14 education system? I’m not arguing for a monopoly on any of this, but simply for the government to put colleges central to its infrastructure plans and recognise the jewels it simply needs to spend some time polishing up to properly sparkle.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges