"I thought the college needed a bit of a PR make-over," says Danny Clough of the time when he took the helm of Colchester Institute.
The college, where he became principal in 2001, is the biggest in Essex but it was not covering outlying coastal towns. "We were seen to be Colchester-centric," says Mr Clough. "What we have attempted to do is to try and take our learning to the learners, rather than the learners always having to come to the college."
It has since opened a centre in Clacton, as well as high street centres in Dovercourt and Harwich. About half of its students are now from its rural and coastal hinterland.
The college is a centre of vocational excellence in hospitality and food studies, for which it has just gained a grade one at inspection.
Mr Clough has a PR background. He was a director of marketing at a college during the 1980s and believes this has played its part in building Colchester Institute's image. "It became our culture to make sure we listen to what employers, students, parents and anybody else might think of the college. And we try to build a positive image at every step," he says.
"However much you talk about a national sector, I think further education depends on the reputation and the profile you have within your area. The more colleges manage to establish a reputation locally and regionally, the better image they are going to have nationally."
Cornwall College, the biggest in the UK, would claim that its reputation is bucking national trends.
It reports a 93 per cent satisfaction rate among the 1,400 businesses it works with. Cornwall's economy is made up almost entirely of small and medium-sized businesses, and its population is spread across a rural county.
John Latham, the principal, said: "We have just tried to reflect the economic pattern of the county we serve."