Clearly, it hadn’t crossed the mind of either that colleges should be included, despite the fact that one of the chief executives is an FE college alumnus. Morrisons deserves credit for quickly extending its offer to colleges, but more worrying is our invisibility, and the lack of soft power and influence that it signals.
The UK retains very significant global soft power. The English language is perhaps our biggest asset, but our pop music, major universities, the BBC, our top football clubs, even our Royal family (see the number of languages into which the latest series of The Crown has been dubbed) all underline a brand with huge reach.
More by Ian Pryce: 'Colleges must focus on evolution, not revolution'
Background: Morrisons U-turn on college staff
Let's consider the way in which China uses its people across the globe to project its values. The way it uses its economic power – for example, the $900 billion Belt and Road project– and purchasing power to limit criticism. The way it uses think tanks and networks to secure the services of powerful allies. The way it has moved to secure strong positions in international bodies like the UN and World Health Organisation. Think about how many UK universities are financially dependent on Chinese students – there is a clear strategy at work here.
Soft power is expensive to acquire but has real long-term benefits.
Colleges gaining power and influence
So, could colleges and sector bodies learn from this? Do we have a clear strategy to secure and maintain power and influence?
When so much of society is run by an elite that studied at our great universities and a select group of private schools, it is inevitable that those institutions will be swiftly able to defend themselves against any changes they don’t like. However, just because further education tends to serve the less privileged parts of society, it shouldn’t prevent us from securing soft power. So how might we do it?
One key is to ensure that our representative bodies can’t be ignored. The Association of Colleges has achieved some big wins for us in the past year, much bigger than we could achieve individually. Yet we too easily get dragged into battles about whether fees should rise with inflation rather than focusing on what needs to be done so we have the ministers on speed dial (and vice versa) and ensure that we properly resource that activity.
The Collab Group started life named after paragraph 157 in the Foster report that encouraged principals explicitly to develop soft power. The Chartered Institution for Further Education has the power to grant charters and fellowships.
I know that some dislike the pomp of admissions ceremonies but why should only the most powerful parts of society – Parliament, universities, royal societies, the city – get a monopoly on pomp? It is a way of projecting soft power. In FETL, we also have our own think tank, but we could do with far more.
Achieving soft power at a local level
At a more local level, what can individual colleges do? Our governors are mostly diligent people, but not necessarily selected for their broader influence. However, that doesn’t stop us using patrons and ambassadors. In 2011 after I was recognised with a Queen's Birthday honour, I was approached within hours by a hospital charity and asked to be a vice-president because any honour on their stationery increased the money they could attract.
Government uses international development as soft power, so perhaps we could use our purchasing and distributive power. Do we routinely expect every recipient of bursary funding formally to testify how much difference it made? After all, Marcus Rashford’s free school meals appeal is partly down to his personal story. Do we routinely expect our suppliers to support college events or funding bids? Do we chase reviews and use the most favourable to enrol others?
You can also use soft power to negate criticism. When I first came to Bedford, I was surprised to hear nothing but good things about the big private schools run by a local trust, even from very left-wing politicians. The trust was adept at including key figures across the political spectrum in its charity work and committees.
Do we ensure that the most influential people are on our side like that? We have identified a list of the 100 most important people in our patch and constantly make sure our relationship with each is strong. It is generally true that people will not turn on those who genuinely seek their wisdom, and if your name is on a building you have a vested interest in the organisation’s success.
Finally, you best achieve soft power through competitive excellence. Top universities use international league tables to boast about their global standing. WorldSkills UK offers us a route to doing the same through competitions and objective standards that can prove that we are world class in a way our traditional qualifications and outcomes cannot. When the UK beat China at an electronics competition recently, it made the national media. Our sports bodies have become precise at calculating how much investment is needed to deliver an Olympic medal.
Surely our soft power would be unstoppable if we could be similarly precise on how much it costs to create thousands of truly world-class technicians, rather than students who pass their exams?
If we don’t, how many more discounts will our staff miss out on?
Ian Pryce is principal and CEO of the Bedford College Group