In a world of markets and choice, it is not only having clarity of purpose that matters; it is also being able to communicate this effectively. Loughborough College, where I have been principal for almost 20 years, neighbours public schools called colleges, state schools with college titles and private language schools with "college" signs over the door. It would be easy to see this as the cause of frequent confusion; the reason why I so often find myself embarking on a long explanation of FE and our college.
A recent Association of Colleges paper pointed out that a single identity was key in driving other countries' success in vocational education and urged UK providers to unite under a single brand. The Loughborough College International Office has encountered difficulties working in China due to the lack of cachet surrounding the word "college" and I have toyed with renaming it. Why not expropriate the polytechnic title? Polytechnics have a long history of being at the forefront of vocational and technical endeavour, and around the world it is a positive term. But is this the way to go for an institution providing foundation learning through to honours degrees?
At Loughborough College our specialisms range from engineering to sport. FE is like a sponge: it absorbs all thrown at it. That is to our great credit and cost. We can be made to feel that those of us who develop a broad curriculum make the prospect of clearly defining the sector even harder. I would argue instead that our contribution to the range of opportunity in post-16 education offers the chance of a strong and exciting brand.
Perhaps we should title ourselves TEC, or its cousin TEP? Loughborough College lost the "technical" from its title almost a quarter of a century ago, and in those days it was a somewhat disparaging term. Today, I feel it is a far more engaging and expansive notion. The TEC for the 21st century would stand for Technical Education Consultancy. After all, everyone working in the FE sector provides consultancy, day in, day out, to colleagues and the public. Or how about TEP: Technical Education Partnership? This would reframe the picture, away from students who are viewed merely as recipients of education towards a partnership between students, staff, the college, the community and employers.
The words underlying TEC or TEP are a better reflection of what general FE institutions actually do. However, to be more than a group and become a movement, TEC or TEP would need to be taken up widely.
Jim Mutton is principal of Loughborough College.