The debate about the purpose of colleges will probably continue for ever. That’s not peculiar to our sector; others have the same existential angst either continually or episodically. Just take a look over the fence at universities, which have done so well for so long without seemingly worrying too much about their purpose. They are worrying now and having to work hard to define a purpose that others will respect and support.
In the college world, we have not been so fortunate in terms of understanding and respect, so the issue of purpose has always been to the fore. For me, colleges are all about transforming lives and supporting their communities (in the broadest definition of community). How those two play out for each college depends on history and context and every college I’ve ever visited has it’s own unique take on it. That said, I do think this definition and promotion of purpose is a weakness. So, I’d like to propose three areas college leaders can focus on to help promote a better understanding and a greater respect for colleges: personal responsibility, strategic communications and collective action.
In all of this, I fully recognise the important role we have at the Association of Colleges to help change things. But we cannot do it alone. AoC has a leadership role in all of this, helping and supporting college leaders to develop the narrative, the confidence and the resources which can be used. We are also adept at making the case for colleges in Whitehall, but that case is so much more powerful when AoC members from across the country are aligned on the same messages.
The first area for college leaders to focus on is personal responsibility. It’s clear that colleges have been hit harder than any other part of the education system and that times are very tough indeed. It’s too easy to fall into a trap as a leader to complain and rail against the injustices. My plea is for all of us to rise above that and to exercise realistic but optimistic leadership. We need to show the way through the tough times, talk up the impact colleges make, attract others to work with us and to be clear that the purpose of our colleges is to help build a better society and a stronger economy.
With that in the bag, college leaders can then devote resources to the strategic communications which will help secure the place of the college in its community. It’s not enough for colleges to do amazing things, make a big impact, help people transform their lives and employers become more productive. Colleges need to plan how stakeholders and partners will get to know about it. This area of strategic communications is not about marketing to potential students. It’s about a systematic approach to building relationships with key influencers in the community and it’s important because it is the bedrock of a strong reputation. It’s about securing a place and a space for the college in its community.
The third focus for college leaders builds on this – collective action. Of course, there is competition between colleges, but unless and until we are able to promote, celebrate, applaud what other colleges do, we’ll never shift the image and reputation to where we want it to be. Working together, college leaders are a powerful force and can have a strong voice. We all know how great colleges are, but we need others to know as well and then to speak out and become advocates. College board members, students, staff and employer partners can all be advocates for colleges collectively and individually if we engage them effectively.
That’s a lot to do, but worth it if we get it right. As leaders we need to be confident, self-assured, inspired and inspiring, with the energy and enthusiasm to engage others. I’ve yet to meet a college leader who is not proud of their institution – so let’s use that pride to build understanding and respect for all colleges as true social assets, offering opportunities to all and transforming lives and communities.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges