Why are colleges so wimpish about selling themselves to their prospective students? They know they've got to do it. It was part of the deal they got with their so-called independence in 1993. But do they really have to do it so half-heartedly? So badly?
I have in front of me a pile of college prospectuses, every one of which displays the marketing mentality of the l950s. They are back in the days when someone in grainy black and white would stand up and tell you everything about the product and how good it was. All those phoney mums with their posh voices describing how grubby little Johnny made his shirts and how new improved DAZO, made them gleaming white again.
Of course no one in advertising does that sort of thing any more. It would be a bit like flying to America in a Vickers Viscount. But isn't that exactly how we're still trying to sell our services in further education colleges?
Opening at random one of my assorted prospectuses, the first thing I'm likely to see is a man in a pinstriped suit who goes by the name of chief executive. He has a big smile on his face, presumably because someone has just shown him his pay-slip, or given him the go ahead to close down a loss-making course or two.
Beneath the photograph there are a lot of fine-sounding words about quality and choice and opportunity. If space permitted no doubt he'd tell us how white our shirts would be after two years on a general national vocational qualifications course!
There are lots more smiling faces in the pages that follow. Mostly they belong to past and present students, keen to relate in perfectly-formed sentences how much the college has done for them.
Just think about that for a moment. Most of these people are teenagers. And everyone knows that teenagers don't smile. They might be technically capable of it, but they don't actually do it very much. They're too busy worrying about ozone depletion and acne. And they don't speak in sentences either. Grunted monosyllables (the boys are particularly good at this) is how the cool communicate.
Once you've leafed through all these cheesecake teenagers, what is it you find tucked away at the back of the brochure? Another smiling face. This time it's the college counsellor. Her smile can be attributed to the fact that she's wearing her one smart outfit and that she's just avoided being sacked in the latest college restructuring. She speaks glowingly about how much everyone in the college cares about everyone else (at least when they're not sacking them) and how an Olympic-sized swimming pool is planned for the new millennium.
And so on. Surely if we were serious about the enterprise we would throw out all this embarrassing stuff about how good the product is. Forget the product. It's the associations that count today. The implications for lifestyle. The vibes, the buzz. Nineties advertising is all about the three S's - sex, stories and surrealism. Preferably all together in one neat package.
Sex might be a problem in colleges of course. That wrinkled, greying, dwindling band that comprises FE staff these days don't know much about it any more. Possibly they remember it as something they did before they discovered cocoa. But if only they could see the opportunities there are for selling education through sex. Pick up any problem page and what's the first thing the agony aunt advises the perennially lonely to do? Join a class of some sort. So there you are, the perfect line: go to college and get laid.
Turning that into a story is hardly a problem is it? Boy meets girl is the oldest story in the ad agencies' book. only this time it isn't a spoonful of her Gold Blend he's after but a look at her note on the Irish potato famine.
Surrealism might seem tricky at first, but only to those lacking in imagination. This is where the chief executive comes in. Get him out of the pinstripe suit and into a face mask and frogman's flippers. And make sure he's got a fish sticking out of every orifice. Anyone who knows anything about surrealism knows that there's always a fish in there somewhere.
What's also a must for the surreal treatment are the college premises. The last thing you want your college to look like is a college. Nothing could be more boring than that. The ideal would be a blasted landscape, something post Battle of the Somme perhaps, all mudholes and splintered trees. Or maybe, for indoor activities, a deserted warehouse full of hoists and menace and broken packing cases with stevedores' hooks hanging mysteriously out of them.
So there we have it. The perfect antidote to all those tame, lame, Fifties-style prospectuses. It will have to be a TV commercial of course. You can't expect today's kids to want to read things any more.
Here's how it goes. In an eerie half-light down by the docks a gaggle of youngsters wanders around frowning and grunting. No one has any idea about who they are or what they're doing, but occasionally they pair off and disappear behind an oil drum for a quick shag. In the midst of all this in strolls a nervous-looking man in a pinstripe bathing suit with a fishfinger protruding from each nostril. At intervals, issuing from the end of his snorkel, can be heard the muffled word: quality!
Don't tell me that won't pack 'em in!
Stephen Jones is a London further education lecturer