Kay Smith and Neil Munro report on the increasingly important role played by marketing and outreach work.
The marketing of further education may have as much to do with looking after the weans as promoting college wares. The recent HMI report on standards in FE gave the seal of approval to colleges' marketing efforts since incorporation but the principal of Motherwell College takes a broad view of what these efforts should entail.
With a high proportion of single parents in Motherwell, the college offers up to 200 nursery places for the children of students. "I see these facilities as important marketing tools," Richard Millham says. In a college where the average student age is 28, 10 years older than a decade ago, a rolling programme to improve the toilets counts towards the marketing effort. "Adults won't put up with bad toilets. Late lecturers do not go down well either, " the principal says.
Motherwell has to fight its corner against four other Lanarkshire colleges and a welter of private trainers and it helps to have a better than average college shop, Mr Millham says.
The HMI report said colleges were using a variety of techniques, including informative and well-designed publicity materials, as part of marketing plans that formed a "significant element" in the overall planning process of colleges.
It is a picture markedly different from one given in a report by the School of Further Education at Jordanhill a decade ago which damned FE marketing as an area dominated not by sound practice or by strategic planning but "by tradition".
The time is past when relying on tradition will do. There is a move away from non-academic school-leavers and day-release trainees towards students from older age-groups and with a wide range of education and training needs. Half of all FE students in Scotland are now aged 25 and over.
This new market-place is full of competitors and changing customer needs. But colleges, as HMI notes, have responded well. The Scottish Office itself made a direct contribution through Fast Forward with Further Education before transferring marketing support to the Scottish Further Education Unit. By 1993, the SFEU had produced its own report, Marketing Means Business, which concluded that customers saw colleges as "more modern and innovative". Staff cared about students and courses were better tailored.
Like the Motherwell principal, the SFEU report recognised that sound marketing practice had to be backed by providing the right kind of services delivered in the right kind of environment.
Virtually all of Scotland's 43 incorporated colleges now have a marketing department or officer. This is a very different picture from 1987 when Ann Macleod became Scotland's first FE marketing officer in the then Aberdeen College of Commerce. Departments vary from one-man bands to a staff of 10 at Aberdeen College.
Ms Macleod, now a senior development officer with the SFEU, stresses that "everyone in the college is a marketeer". She says: "People work hard in colleges, but the marketing departments work particularly hard."
The SFEU offers support but resists the notion of imposing blanket approaches and policies. Each college is "a very discrete business working in a distinct marketing environment", Ms Macleod comments. It has to do its own homework, or audit, of the factors affecting this environment.
Marketing theory recognises that an institution's strategy requires a range of approaches targeted at a range of "audiences". In practice, marketing departments vary enormously in their remits, some handling only media relations, brochure production and advertising, while responsibility for strategic planning, including any refurbishment of toilets, rests elsewhere. HMI also gave colleges credit for selling themselves more effectively to employers. Links "had been exploited to develop programmes tailored to industrial needs", it stated. "Employers generally spoke highly of colleges and their responsiveness."
This verdict was an improvement on past performance, as measured by employer perceptions recorded in the SFEU's 1993 report. The Association of Scottish Colleges, which has worked with Scottish Enterprise and the SFEU to foster employer links, can take some credit for this.
So, too, must lecturing staff like those at Motherwell College who pitch up at a local factory at 10pm to work with night shift workers.
But if marketing is a success story, links with schools were rated as "variable". At worst, colleges regarded schools "only as competitors". Levels of reporting, too, on school pupils undertaking studies in college were described as "not always effective". These assessments, according to Gordon Paterson, education liaison manager at Clydebank College and secretary of the recently formed Scottish College-Schools Liaison Network, were "fair".
Schools and colleges have found themselves in direct competition for the under-18 market, leaving some schools "furious" at colleges that merely hand them glossy brochures when what they are looking for are links that are "more curriculum based and supportive", Mr Paterson says.
At the network's inaugural conference earlier this year Ron Tuck, chief executive of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, noted that irritation works both ways with colleges wary of schools "dumping their most difficult pupils on them".
Mr Tuck predicted that the unification of academic and vocational qualifications under Higher Still would introduce changes. "Even large schools will be too small to offer the full range of possibilities," he said. Joint provision between schools and colleges, backed by effective reporting arrangements, will be the way forward. But it remains to be seen whether partnership, not competition, will become the driving force.