Watch out for a principal in a sandwich board

7th September 2001 at 01:00
UNLIKE the rest of continental Europe, from mid-August onwards life for Scottish FE colleges is all about student recruitment: a frantic round of open days, enrolment evenings, extra newspaper advertisements - and on television for the more prosperous among us. Everything, that is, except sandwich boards and I keep expecting to see a principal tramping the streets, wearing one soon.

Then there are induction days, interviews with students, the struggle to confirm student acceptance of places offered - in other words the ever more frantic scramble to achieve target numbers.

It's been this way for as long as I can remember. But since incorporation in 1993 it has become more difficult, and I am sure at some time in every college someone begins to wonder if there will be enough students to go round.

Take Glasgow, where the competition includes three universities that usually offer a more powerful attraction. But FE colleges usually offer the advantage of being closer to home and this can often negate the attractions of a university place.

Competition from universities can none the less be cutthroat. Colleges are familiar with the (probably apocryphal) tale about the student who was barely accepted for a pre-Higher National course in an FE college who phoned in to say she has been accepted for a degree at a university. Don't laugh - it might be true. The same story with variations is also told with your nearest FE rival substituted for the university and an HND course for the degree.

If recruitment is difficult, the planning is even more so. Changes in two of our courses illustrate the problems. Child care and education (formerly known as nursery nursing) has proved increasingly popular over the past 10 years and, with the push from the Government for childcare places, there is now even more demand. Most colleges running these courses will plan to run a pre-HN and an HNC course with several classes in each.

Over the past year a trend seems to have developed where many students leave before their HN because their skills and knowledge are marketable and they can gain employment. Some will come back to study the HNC part-time and some will even have their fees paid by their new employers, so they are not lost to the college except as full-time students. I wonder how many strategic plans got that one right three years ago.

The other example is theatre arts. These are not as popular as childcare courses but certainly in our own college their popularity is growing. This year we decided to run an extra HNC class and (fingers crossed) have actually achieved target. Luckily we don't have to venture far outside the locale to recruit. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise. The competition here comes from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (which recently took five students who were about to start on our course) and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art south of the border.

A question often asked is why does the country need so many actors and singers, but there is unmet demand from talented, qualified people. The senior lecturer's immediate worry is how we can do a pantomime with such a large cast.

A member of our board of management keeps asking whether the growth demanded by the funding council is achievable and how much of it is actually geared towards the needs of the economy. He is not satisfied with the answers he has received so far and he thinks that the growth bubble is about to burst.

Will the Scottish Executive be able to continue to fund growth with or without a "tartan tax"?

In Scottish FE colleges, August is a wicked month.

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

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