It's that time of year again. As students gallop towards our exit doors we begin to think about attracting our new intake. Once you place education firmly within the market place, and use the language of the double-glazing salesman, you pretty soon find yourself looking for the best way to market your product. And lo! The Big Day is born.
Dundee College: Tayside's Newest Theme Park? No that's not our latest slogan - not yet anyway. Our second Big Day event was billed as "a fun-packed day for all the family" and if you were at a loose end on a recent Sunday, college was certainly the place to be. On the stroke of 1 o'clock, festivities got underway with thunder-flashes courtesy of the Territorial Army followed by a deluge of balloons which flooded all five centres throughout the city, and a shower of parachutists from Skydive Scotland, one of them our computing section head, who performed daring free-fall jumps on to what must have looked like a very small playing field.
The Big Day Guide offered a pick 'n' mix menu from designing your own bridge to learning the delights of astronomy. You could try your hand at being a television newscaster, win burger vouchers, surf the net, or watch a male volunteer have his back waxed for charity. And if all that made you a bit peckish, you could sample food from around the world, tuck into a cream tea or browse at the barbecue. Jetting around this embarrassment of riches at five centres was no problem with free buses available. It was tricky trying to explain to one telephone caller that no we didn't need his address because the buses didn't exactly stop at your door to collect you, but most people got the general idea.
As a public relations exercise, The Big Day looks good. Our biggest problem is making sure everyone in our community knows who we are and what we offer. Amalgamation and changes in names over the years haven't helped and though we're one college on five sites, local people still tend to think of us as discrete colleges - they still talk of "Commercial College" and "The Kingsway Tech".
The Big Day puts the community into our college and allows them to see the facilities and meet some of the staff. If they need specific information, then it's available, but it's not a hard sell for courses. There's no doubt that many people are genuinely surprised by what they see. One grandmother, who'd come along with her granddaughter to find out about courses in communication, listened fascinated to a discussion about photography, video production and journalism units.
"There was nothing like this when I was young," she said. "You left school at 15 and went into work. That was that."
John, also a grandparent, was impressed by our desk-top publishing suite. "I worked with computers in the Sixties. A computer then would take up the whole of this room and wouldn't do half of what this wee Apple Mac does," he told us.
The Big Day gets people through our doors, and they're happy to browse around. But how do you sell your section when people are just passing through, when there's a plethora of attractions to choose from? You need something bright, byte-sized and bold. Preferably with freebies to take away. And so, with a terrible logic, The Big Day takes on a flavour of Disneyworld. Does everyone realise, however, that it's not all fun and games at Dundee College, that every day's not a Big Day and that most of the time, some pretty serious work gets done? Signing up for a Higher National Diploma course demands long-term commitment. And just how many laughs are there in a business writing skills unit?
The Big Day is the glossy tabloid cover of our education package. For those of us who gave up our free time, there was consolation in the fact that crowds turned up and enjoyed themselves. Whether they will want to look behind the glossy packaging, and whether the day will result in increased numbers on courses, is harder to tell.
We smiled, we chatted, we acted like friendly people till our jaws ached. We did our bit for the Wonderful World of Education. Who knows how many of us gazed blearily into the mirror on Monday morning with a week's full load of teaching ahead and muttered, "Big Day. Bah! Humbug!". No matter our reservations about the concept of college as carnival, ideas are already spreading like chickenpox in our section for Big Day '97. Free-fall parachuting - now that's a definite no. Isn't it?
Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College