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National survey shows colleges are failing to market themselves adequately to parents and employers. Ian Nash reports

College managers fail to take into account the opinions of parents and employers when planning strategies, a national survey states.

Just one in 10 regularly seeks the views of parents, while only four in 10 conduct research into employers' needs, the study reveals.

The Responsive College Unit, a national research body for further education, found that 85 per cent of (140) colleges in the survey gather parents' views "irregularly, if at all, in spite of the fact that parents are known to be a key influence on the choice of post-16 pathway" for their children.

The unit echoes the findings of recent research by the Learning and Skills Development Agency, which said school-leavers were ill-advised on choices post 16 and that "apathetic" parents went along with it (FE Focus, November 26).

The agency report points to an urgent need for colleges to reach parents.

But the research was highly anecdotal, being based on student focus groups in colleges and school sixth forms. The unit's report shows that the problems are more deeply entrenched.

Equally alarming, according to the unit's report, is the failure of colleges to investigate adequately the needs of employers. While research into employers' views was more common, four out of 10 colleges failed to do this regularly. Six in 10 also failed to gather regularly the views of local residents.

"The survey raises concerns about the ability of colleges to respond fully to the Government's Success for All strategy, which requires colleges to be responsive to the needs of individuals and employers," the authors say.

College promotions appear to be stuck in the ethos of the 1980s, when competition was everything, the unit suggests. While one in four colleges boasts promotional budgets in excess of pound;200,000 a year, only one in eight spends more than pound;6,000 researching the market. Glossy brochures and big advertisements on buses and billboards were given pride of place, while more sophisticated marketing, research and analysis of customer views were lacking.

"Marketing is still struggling to establish its place in the college pecking order. Less than one in five marketing department heads are on their college's senior management teams," says the report, National Review of Market Intelligence Systems in Colleges 2004.

Gordon Aitken, RCU director, says the research contains mixed messages for colleges: "We have come a long way from the early days of marketing in FE and many colleges now devote serious budgets to promotion. But without effective research, it is hard to assess whether colleges are offering the right services or indeed whether all that promotional spending is working."

Rachel Smith, chair of the Marketing Network, says: "Marketing units operate under very high pressure and the strongest claims on staff time are always the immediate deadlines and the high-profile events, like the prospectus, the next open day or PR campaign.

"Although college marketers are usually aware that market intelligence is very important for the development of effective promotional activities, these immediate pressures mean that research is pushed down the priority list. Many respondents told us that they lacked the time, the skills and the resources to carry out effective market research, and this is a matter of concern to us."

Some surprising omissions in market research followed, according to the report. One in four colleges surveyed says they "irregularly or never" analysed their geographical recruitment area.

On this, the report concludes: "It is difficult to understand how this sizeable minority of colleges decides on where to circulate information or how to identify and assess the impact on participation of particular schools with sixth forms or other competitors, or the impact which travel routes may have."

A quarter of colleges never surveys local school pupils; a third do it once every three years or less. Consultations with parents are even more rare.

Only one in 10 colleges researches the perceptions of local parents more than once every two years. The report also points to a failure of communications in the careers advice network. Almost two-thirds of colleges do not know what careers advisers think of them.

Gordon Aitken urges colleges to invest in sharper research techniques such as "Mystery shopping, where researchers make enquiries to the college to test the speed, effectiveness and accuracy of responses". It was seen as one of the best ways of assessing the opinions of prospective students and employers.

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