Spacious new offices reflect the growing stature of the Responsive College Unit and its customers. Huw Richards talks to its director Gordon Aitken.
BUCKINGHAM House may not be as grand as it sounds, but for one firm used to serving what was once education's Cinderella sector, it marks a literal and metaphoric rise for both it and its clients.
The Responsive College Unit, the FE market research and consultancy firm, completed its physical move between Christmas and New Year as it shifted a quarter of a mile to more spacious offices in the centre of Preston.
The metaphorical shift mirrors the change in Government priorities for the sector, according to Gordon Aitken, director of RCU.
The RCU is a product of further education's compete-or-die era. After being founded as part of Lancashire County Council's further education unit in 1987, it was spun-off as an independent operation in 1993. It prospered as colleges looked to market research for guidance through the ferociously competitive post-incorporation landscape.
But as ministerial rhetoric shifts from the competitive drive of the Conservatives to the collaborative priorities espoused by Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett, the RCU has shown the flexibility implicit in its name.
The current financial year is projected to produce a 55 per cent increase in turnover, to around pound;500,000. Hence the move: "The lease was coming to an end and it makes sense to move on. We have outgrown where we are and expect to increase our staffing to respond to the demand," says Mr Aitken who is planning to expand his 10-strong staff to 14 soon.
RCU was operating exclusively in the North-west when Mr Aitken joined in 1990 on secondment from Nelson and Colne College where he lectured in business studies and economic theory. Although it is still owned by a consortium of nine colleges from the region, its reach today is nationwide.
Mr Aitken is not surprised that demand has continued to rise for the firm's services even as the ultra-competitive era that provided its initial impetus ends: "College planning and decision-making are getting more and more complex. We supply the evidence that helps principals make those decisions," he says.
Mr Aitken says that RCU offers far more than just number-crunching survey figures.
"Our particular strength, based on knowledge of the sector, is the ability to interpret those numbers and dig beneath them to provide colleges with serious advice." RCU also offers more formal consultancy work, particularly on marketing strategies.
Nor is its approach purely reactive. Among its important contributions to the sector is geographical mapping of student numbers: "It seems obvious now that you should look at enrolments in mapping terms, but we only introduced it in 1992-3. Now most colleges use this type of analysis."
That in turn led to researching non-users: "Colleges had traditionally surveyed their students, but there was very little on people who didn't use the system and their reasons for not doing so."
Some surveys have declined in popularity over the years - RCU is still asked to survey employer attitudes and students' response to their college experience, but institutions are increasingly likely to have developed their own surveys and data in these areas.
Collaboration has provided a new dimension to their work, acting as an honest broker for market-sensitive information: "You may have six or seven colleges who want to have some idea of their collective impact and strength.
"Each college supplies its own information and we put it together to provide an overall picture." Other growth areas include retention surveys and assessments of college economic impact: "Colleges are increasingly involved in partnership with local employers and agencies. Colleges are key economic players in themselves, often among the top 10 employers in the town, but they need the information to prove this to partners."
Looking forward, he would like to see more longitudinal studies tracking individual students and assessing course benefits for them. He also wants more focus group-based work, particularly on excluded groups.
He cites the examples of one group of lone mothers whose main obstacle to entry was not the absence of a creche but lack of confidence - a problem countered by offering frequent tutor contact - and of a group on a tough estate who confounded the researchers by asking for courses which ran at different times each week.
"The explanation was that it wasn't safe to be seen leaving their houses at the same time on the same day each week - the pattern would be spotted and someone would break in. The college put the flexible course on."
There is a wider lesson in this. said Mr Aitken: "One reason why some groups are excluded is that they don't fit into existing provision and their problems rarely have easy, cheap answers.
"Colleges need to consider needs very carefully, and recognise that meeting them may be expensive."