Not so much a prospectus as a marketing ploy

27th April 2001 at 01:00
Proof-reading the college's 2002-3 draft prospectus the other day coincided with a clear-out of the library stock from a site which we are leaving this summer. So I had the chance to compare the very latest version of our key item of publicity with the totally different document produced some 20 years ago.

The contrasts caused me to splutter into my herbal tea (not available 20 years ago). To start with, there was the difference in the timing of the print-run.

Nowadays we think 18 months ahead because we want to get the prospectus into impressionable hands before they have signed up for any of the alternatives. Back then, prospectuses were ready only as the September term began, piled high at the reception desk, to be picked up by people who had come to enrol. The prospectus then was more of a badge of membership than a guide to the choices available.

It was also in black and white, with pictures of workshops with serried ranks of intimidating machines, an empty gymnasium, and a decidedly gloomy refectory. Not a student in sight.

The 2002-3 version is in full colour, in fashionably distorted semi-focus, giving the clear message that college is fun, fun, fun and cool, cool, cool. No staff are listed these days, whereas two decades ago most of the space seemed to be taken up with taxonomies of teachers, each with yards of initials after their names, most of them E, in the days when E stood for Engineering.

Support staff, or non-teachers as they were known, were not thought worthy of mention. In the old days we appeared to be trying to convey the gravitas of a university, now it's more like a holiday brochure with a list of special attractions designed to lure the discerning customer. Then, you were lucky to have this opportunity to improve your mind. Now, we need your business.

Back in those dark ages, the prospectus was put together by the chief administrative officer. The main job was to update the information from the previous year. The courses didn't change much from one decade to the next, but a few teachers cam and went, and the dates of the holidays needed amendment.

It was also vital to make sure that anybody who was now entitled to yet more letters after their name had their achievement recorded.

Nowadays, we have a full-blown marketing operation, alert to the swings of fashion and the roundabouts of taste. They make sure that the prospectus has impact in the right places, that it positions us where we want to be in the market, and that the print-run (now 10 times larger than it used to be) is justified by an increase in enrolments.

When not slaving over a hot prospectus, they devise calendars, notepads and biros with the college brand-mark clearly displayed, as well as mats for coffee mugs and mice.

The biggest change, however, is in the sheer number and variety of what used to be called courses, now more correctly described as programmes. Almost nothing is left now of what used to be offered.

It is not just that there are wholly new areas of curriculum and sets of qualifications. Learning opportunities (ugh!) are packaged and presented like individually potted plants in a garden centre. Take what you want, grow your own curriculum vitae.

The college, like many a garden centre, has diversified over the years. Not just a provider of education and training, but a nursery, an arts centre, a retailer, a hotelier, a transport operator, a travel agent, and a salon-owner, to mention only the more obvious roles. Most of that finds a place in the prospectus, as evidence of what people now expect to find in a lively and organic college.

Pondering the range of services on offer, I was taken aback by the entrepreneurial flair of a successful garden centre in this area. They had begun a new line in garden sheds, and a large sign gave the price-list of the various models. At the bottom was a further offer: erection, if required, pound;50. Which goes to show that raising standards is everyone's preoccupation these days, and that it doesn't come cheap.

Michael Austin is principal of Accrington and Rossendale College

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