Should you wish to find out how many single parents are studying information technology skills in a cluster of FE colleges, then ask the Responsive College Unit, which may just be able to provide the answer.
The RCU, a market research consultancy based in Preston, has access to census information for the entire population. It can tell you how many single parents live in a specific postal area down to the last 2,000 households and what proportion of these people are studying IT skills in FE.
From this information a college should be able to judge whether there is scope for further student take-up of IT courses in its area.
Such a precision-honed market research tool has been further refined recently because the unit has been granted access to individualised student records (ISRs) for the whole of the FE sector.
The Further Education Funding Council has granted the unit the status of "analysis partner", which means that it can use the data to help colleges refine student recruitment. The research is conducted in such a way as to protect the confidentiality of individual students and colleges.
For the first time, colleges can find out detailed information about the pattern of participation of local people studying with other institutions in the sector.
Lifelong learning partnerships, the agreements between colleges and their communities aimed at widening access in line with the recommendations of the Kennedy report, have already used this service to supplement details of local recruitment from other FEFC-funded providers. Such information is broken down by age, gender, postcode, subject area and even individual qualifications. Colleges can discover if they are under-recruiting in a particular area or whether other colleges are already meeting local demand.
Gordon Aitken, director of the unit, which is owned by a consortium of nine colleges, said that the funding council was not in a position to provide a detailed analysis of all the data it collected; customising information for colleges is not part of its job.
The council - under pressure to provide more detailed analysis - approached the RCU. The idea was that the unit should conduct such analysis commercialy within a strict code of confidentiality.
The RCU - founded as part of Lancashire County Council's further education unit in 1987 and spun off as an independent operation in 1993 - used to do a lot of analysis of individual college student records, but lacked the ability to compare this data readily with that from other institutions. One college might discover that 5 per cent of its local adults were taking part in adult learning, but it would not know how this compared with neighbouring colleges.
Now they can compare recruitment, retention and achievement rates with those of comparable institutions. One college, as part of its self-assessment procedure, had asked to be compared with 10 similar colleges. Thanks to the RCU, it could see how its figures compared for whole sub-sets of the student body: eg, by age, gender or mode of attendance.
One specialist college asked for all qualifications within its area to be ranked in terms of popularity to see whether it should be offering a wider range of courses.
Another example involved two colleges in the South-east both serving commuter towns. They wanted to know what percentage of local people were registered with Greater London colleges. This would tell them what the size of their real target market was and prevent them from attempting to recruit learners who were already spoken for.
Given the reduction in the amount of franchising (teaching students off-site), colleges want to know what volume and type of franchising activity has been taking part in their areas. This will enable them to assess what kind of gaps in local FE provision might need filling.
Mr Aitken said the data would also be used to see how retention and achievement patterns for different categories of students varied across the country.
He was especially interested to see how students from relatively deprived backgrounds who qualified for extra funding, the so-called Kennedy uplift students, fared in terms of retention and achievement. Early indications were that they may be less likely to achieve a qualification at the end of their studies.
The unit has an annual turnover of more than pound;500,000 and employs 14 statisticians and was the sixth fastest growing market research agency last year. It has only one year's ISR data - for 19978. When it gets the next academic year early in 2000, it will start analysing trends over time.