How colleges' success turns into a dismal publicity failure
Yet the fact that 72 per cent of students completed their courses last year made little impression on the national media.
The publicity black hole has highlighted yet again the dismally low public profile of colleges: for every press release issued by ministers about colleges, nearly 20 are issued about schools.
Yet an ICM opinion poll earlier this year for the Association of Colleges showed that, at a local level, the public is well aware of and appreciates its neighbourhood colleges. It was agreed by 84 per cent of poll respondents that successful FE colleges are just as important to UK businesses as good universities.
This discrepancy is a major reason why college principals insisted that the reputation of FE be one of the six issues on the Learning and Skills Council's agenda for change. John Korzeniewski, the LSC's north-west region director, is leading the group looking at ways to improve FE's profile and reputation. Reputation is also one of the 10 key issues for Sir Andrew Foster's official review of the future of FE.
Mr Korzeniewski said: "Most individual colleges have a good reputation in their local community. But that doesn't translate itself to policy-makers in national government, businesses at a national level or to parents. These three groups are very influential."
But why is a higher profile so important? Senior figures at the Association of Colleges believe that a lack of media and public attention lets ministers carry out reforms without proper scrutiny.
The lack of public interest may also lead ministers to ignore colleges in favour of sexier policy areas. This leads to under-investment as funds get diverted to higher-profile schools and universities. When ministers draw attention to FE, the AoC fears, it often suits them to do so negatively.
And why do colleges get so little coverage in newspapers? The AoC is frequently told by senior journalists that it is because news editors did not go to college and, moreover, do not send their children to further education.
It is also told that readers' focus groups are not asked about colleges.
Such groups are used to identify public aspirations. Responding to readers'
perceived aspirations is what leads newspapers to give so much attention to private schools, A-levels and the Russell Group of top universities.
Mr Korzeniewski and his task group have made three recommendations. The first is to conduct a systematic survey of the reputation of the sector.
He said: "Foster is commissioning a survey from MORI. We will be able to use that as a baseline to test whether the things we are putting in place through the whole Agenda for Change will improve reputation."
The second issue is quality. Excellent work and results will improve the standing of colleges. "Reputation clearly depends on quality of provision," he said. "That is, in terms of outcomes and inspection reports. We also need new measures of success that reflect the range of services colleges offer, in a way that league tables don't. Success is not just about exam results."
The third recommendation is self-regulation, with colleges adopting university-style assessment by peers rather than external monitoring.
"If colleges are seen to be self-regulating bodies, that will improve the esteem they are held in," Mr Korzeniewski said.
Helen Gilchrist, principal of Bury college in Lancashire, who is on the reputation task group, said that calling colleges "providers" has damaged their reputation.
She said: "Colleges are distinct. But, since the setting up of the LSC, we have been put together with all 16-plus providers and that has lowered our profile. It made us the same as other providers and we believe we have a distinctive offer and distinctive purpose."