Sorry madam, but it's sell yourself or die

9th March 2001 at 00:00
Some years ago I made a presentation at an in-service day on "marketing education". The audience was a mixed group of primary and secondary teachers and like most in-service audiences at that time ran from mild enthusiasm, through indifference to occasional hostility.

In this group there was a teacher (a science teacher as it turned out) who from the beginning displayed a wonderful antipathy to everything I was saying. I tried not to take it personally. Her hostility was based on a philosophical objection to the marketing concept, and a complete rejection of the marketing concept as applied to education: education being a good thing should not need marketing - especially in schools, which were compulsory. It would be difficult to convey the contempt with which my words were received.

Like most groups, this one was sufficiently courteous to hear me out and by the end, partly thanks to my protagonist, we had a lively debate going. In fact, by the end a more honest and perhaps realistic objection was being aired - that the further education college's marketing effort might entice away a significant number of pupils from schools.

I am not sure what the group learnt that day, but it was a lesson for me in the hostility of professionalism to managerial concepts. As we know, this hostility is especially powerful when the professionalism is being used as a camouflage for self-interest. At the end of the presentation I made the point that while I accepted that people might not like "marketing" they would be fortunate to escape its future influence on their jobs, for good or ill.

Once most marketing officers were academic staff, usually senior lecturers, with a few hours' remission from teaching duties. Nowadays it is more likely to be a marketing professional who is not a member of academic staff. And that is no accident. Fifteen years ago all institutions were being urged to become more responsive

With incorporation came fierce competition to achieve growth, and marketing of necessity developed a higher profile. More money was spent and increasingly the marketing function came to be staffed by people with appropriate qualifications.

Recently, it seems to me, marketing has come to be accepted as at best essential and at least inevitable. But some college staff are still critical, accusing it of polluting the profession with commercial techniques incompatible with the fundamental objectives of an education service.

So what is marketing? The Chartered Institute of Marketing defines it as "the managerial function responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirement at a profit". Even if we remove the profit element the essence of marketing is about being responsive to client or customer needs. This stands in stark contrast to the philosophy of expecting customers to adapt to what is offered.

Unfortunately this philosophy can still be found in a number of FE institutions or in parts of them and the worst experiences are often to be found in college enrolment procedures which in the worst cases have been likened to the mating routines of some large and rare mammals - occurring annually with maximum inconvenience and minimal pleasure to both parties. With colleges now being encouraged to widen participation, ease access and enrol the socially excluded, it is even more important that colleges understand customer needs and wants and orientate their efforts to meeting those needs.

If that science teacher ever found her way into the FE sector she might by now have begun to appreciate that it is the commitment to educational marketing, by both academic and support staff, which will determine whether a college succeeds . . . or even survives.

Norman Williamson is principal of Coatbridge College and a member of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

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