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Great ads, shame about the product

Nigel Newton wonders why colleges feel forced to spend millions on glossy brochures, freebies and radio slots

As the exam season draws to a close and the last of the moderation is done, serious work behind the scenes continues unabated.

The first we hear of it, in the staffroom, is that orders for resources may need to be increased, that the part-timers, whose services were no longer required, have been called in for meetings, and that doubts are expressed over how many students we can fit in a classroom. It seems that the college could meet its recruitment targets for next year.

With the Government's target of 90 per cent of 16-year-olds continuing their education hovering in the air like smog, local learning and skills councils now set goals for colleges' intake that almost defy demographics.

In this context, it is not surprising that over the last few years colleges have become increasingly dependent on marketing.

Although colleagues still recall the days when that job was done as a hobby by one of the staff from reprographics, the situation is quite different today. The pressures for senior managers desperate to maintain their share of the funding are real.

Every wandering soul has to be brought in and at least a few should be encouraged to abandon their sixth-form for the opportunities of college.

The momentum to pack them in is increasing.

As Kathryn Ecclestone mentioned (FE Focus, June 9), there are already several schemes to extend participation pre-16. It will not be long before some of these become standard across the sector. Post-16, we have seen the introduction of educational maintenance allowances (EMAs) with more proposals for widening participation on the agenda.

Ready or not, lecturers are expected to embrace these changes and once marketing, school liaison, and admissions have worked their magic, it is down to them to make sure no one leaves without completing a course.

This is a busy time for attracting students. As lecturers recover their strength during the holidays, marketing departments will be dropping flyers along target streets, buying air time on the local radio and sending numerous postings to potential students awaiting their GCSE results.

It is useful that the A-level results are released a week before. Good publicity in the local press could prove the difference in attracting the undecided who may have been considering the more popular college in the next town.

With budgets tight, selling college also has to involve allowing the advertising of other companies to appear in the pages of glossy promotional literature. Everyone from health clubs to driving centres, is willing to buy space. With this kind of business it is not surprising to see ingenuity and creativity at work in winning new clients.

Last year colleges, according to LSC data, spent anything from pound;40 to pound;160 on marketing per student. The more successful colleges are at attracting students, the cheaper the overall sales costs.

Students are not unresponsive to media courting and gimmickry. Balloons on open day, birthday cards and progressor vouchers can all be effective in winning and keeping students.

Good colleges, no doubt, will soon also be investing in developing stronger feeder loyalty with sympathetic schools. The more you pass on to us post-16, the more we will provide for your pre-16s.

With marketing agencies such as Heist operating to support colleges with market research, presentation of core values and customer care, FE marketers are never at rest. If the medium is the message, FE is about change.

Or should we say, re-branded? In an age dominated by image, where, if our national football team could be rewarded points for merchandising potential, we would be World Cup winners, it is not surprising that in 2004-5, the average college spent close to a million pounds on marketing.

How much more if staff time at sales events were included?

But all this begs the question, is it the competitive marketplace we have introduced or the nature of compulsory education that has made continuing post-16 so unappealing that, to encourage applicants, colleges must spend a fortune on marketing?

Either way, lecturers concerned about having the resources they need to deliver their courses effectively will take little comfort in the answer.

Colleges are not to be criticised for this. It is the inevitable consequence of this government's influence, one which has pushed image over substance time and time again.

With reform on the breeze, now is the time to ensure that funding is spent on students' learning, trusting that investment here is the pathway to long term growth.

Nigel Newton is lecturer and educational researcher at New College, Swindon. Data on college expenditure on marketing from the LSC, is at Heist marketing agency

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