Complacent colleges failing the customer

8th June 2001 at 01:00
FE leaders angered by 'poor branding' slur. Ian Nash reports

THE chairman of the Learning and Skills Council has provoked fury among further education leaders by likening colleges to "a Saturday morning market".

Bryan Sanderson has accused them of poor branding of products and paying too little attention to drop-out rates or what the customer needs "because there's probably a belief that the money will come anyway".

He said: "To be brutal, we in the LSC need to inject a little discomfort into this scenario." His remarks in the recent RSA lecture were made in the hope of stimulating debate. Instead, they have provoked anger.

Colleges lacked the clarity of schools and higher education, he said. "If the school sector with the national curriculum and the influence of OFSTED is a high street shop, and our universities a shopping mall with a number of strong brands... then FE is like a Saturday morning market."

Five principals who contacted FE Focus over the speech described it variously as "objectionable", "out-of-touch" and "deeply depressing". One said: "Wherever Sanderson speaks lately, he seems to be taking the chance to denigrate colleges."

Mr Sanderson said FE failed to speak in terms customers could relate to. "We talk about our products in terms that suit us, about curricula and learning programmes. FE as a product is described in terms of the producer rather than the consumer.

"You don't hear Tesco say 'keen to ensure we meet our quality standards'. You hear 'every little helps'," he said. "You don't hear Honda say, 'leading technological advances that make car manufacturers feel good'. You see "the power of dreams'."

He accepted that colleges were more disadantaged than schools and universities as the sector was seen as "one that either did basic skills or was filled to overflowing with mere vocational qualifications."

The answer was partly a "brand-led approach" to post-16 that appeals to the consumer. "For example, if Manchester United were to offer a course on running a module in football careers, they'd get people to sign up," he said. "There are hundreds of colleges but few with a strong brand."

Peter Pendle, general secretary of the Association for College Management, said Mr Sanderson showed a lack of knowledge about the sector. "If we have problems of drop-outs, non-completion and branding, it is because of what we have to do to satisfy the funding council. We have to include learning elements that fail to appeal to the customer.

"A learner may quit after three or four of a ten-module course because they have everything they need. But they are perceived as drop-outs."

Paul Mackney, general secretary of lecturers' union NATFHE, said: "I think Bryan Sanderson should come and talk to staff before introducing yet another set of preconceptions into the college game.

"We've had extensive experience of over-involvement of business in colleges. They were put in charge of running colleges and, quite frankly, it's been a disaster. One quarter to one third of colleges are, at any time, in serious financial difficulty after eight years of this experiment."

David Gibson, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said: "Mr Sanderson's comments came from his very different perspective as a senior businessman and we should all be interested in that. AOC continues to have positive and constructive meetings with him."

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