Enrolments encourage principals
Further education colleges are reporting encouraging enrolment rates as they begin the new term, and are stepping up strategies to hang on to new recruits.
In a snapshot survey carried out by The TES, most principals spoke cautiously of promising signs as enrolments began, and predicted targets would be met.
But while few had turned to EuroDisney tickets and other inducements to attract students, many colleges had introduced longer enrolment periods, extra open days and more in-depth initial guidance to maximise numbers.
New efforts are also being made to ensure that, having taken the course bait, students stay hooked - several colleges are offering free transport or fee remission to tackle the cash problems blamed for the majority of early drop-outs. Colleges are aware of increased competition as research by London University Institute of Education suggests that post-16 stay-on rates have fallen for the first time in a decade.
The enrolment period still had some time to run as The TES went to press, but a few principals were already celebrating significant increases. At Barnsley College, numbers were 40 per cent up on last year, while fast-expanding West Suffolk College was set to meet its 10 per cent overall growth target.
An improved induction programme, with an introductory day for students held in June as well as September, proved successful, according to principal Nick Foster.
Wearside College in Sunderland reported a 10 per cent increase in A-level students on last year together with a rise in enrolments for full-time vocational courses. But take-up for engineering and construction courses was still low, as it is across the country.
Recruitment of post-16s from schools had stood up well at Richmond upon Thames College, despite "fierce competition" in the sector, according to vice-principal Marilyn Frampton. Here too, the college is on course to meet targets.
Salford College is seeing the fruits of its vigorous marketing campaign targeting local schools, with enrolment slightly up on the same period last year.
"It is reasonably encouraging," says principal Mike Humphries, "though there is certainly no dramatic increase, and competition is definitely increasing in the city and in the sector."
Association for Colleges chair Michael Austin, whose own college - Accrington and Rossendale - is on target for full-time numbers but facing problems filling part-time courses, notes that principals are often bullish so early in the year, even though "they won't get a penny unless the students are there in November".
The key to retention lies in high quality counselling at the outset, he believes.
To avoid the "devastating effect" of early departures on budgets, colleges are also beginning to overcome their fear of "exit polls" and spending more time tracking drop-outs.
York FHE College and its five FE neighbours are taking a particularly in-depth approach to retention research, with York also monitoring the effectiveness of new initiatives developed following a study of the problem last year.
Elsewhere, Oxford College aims to answer one money worry among students by introducing free transport. Free tuition for some full-time students, successfully piloted last year, is also being continued.
Cirencester College is also waiving fees for mature students completing courses of more than 14 hours a week.