It’s business time – embrace the new commercialism

10th June 2016 at 00:00
The changing FE landscape demands better links with business – the survival of colleges is at stake

It’s no secret that, thanks to area reviews and apprenticeship reform, the FE sector is undergoing a significant period of change. FE colleges will move away from being state-funded institutions to instead being for-profit businesses that must meet the demands of their customers if they are to survive.

The stark fact is that, whether colleges agree with the area reviews or not, they must embrace the transformation. The alternative is that, in 18 months’ time, they may no longer exist. While we all feel the inevitable pains of change, we must try and remember that it’s not all bad. Many opportunities are open to those who are willing and able to adapt to the new environment. This means looking at the organisation with a keen commercial eye, and reshaping it to meet the demands of the local and national marketplace.

This new approach will be a huge cultural shift for many colleges, but it is possible to achieve. Below, I’ve put together some tips for those colleges that are still scratching their heads about where to start in making their organisation more commercial.

1 Employ a team who know how to talk to employers

Skills minister Nick Boles has told colleges that they should aim to deliver two-thirds of apprenticeships. To do this, many colleges will have to sell their services direct to businesses for the first time. This is just one potential opportunity for colleges to sell direct to employers – there are many more.

My recommendation is to either invest in the development of your current workforce or employ people to do this for you if you don’t have the right in-house skills. Marketing, business development and sales specialists could give you a competitive edge and help open doors with local employers.

The Manchester College is an example of an organisation that has done this to great effect. It has recruited outside of the sector to add specialisms including sales, marketing, planning and HR. As a result, it is now working very successfully with local employers.

2 Think beyond education

It’s not just about vocational education anymore, so think about what else you have that customers might want. Do you have great facilities that you can hire out? Could you offer CPD for local employers to ensure a regular flow of income? Huge untapped potential could be sitting within your organisation if you can work out how to unlock it.

3 Base your business strategy on market data

Understanding the needs of employers and the local jobs market will make your business more self-sufficient and sustainable. Think like a big retailer and ensure that you understand what your potential customers really want, or will want in future, and make sure your college can provide it.

4 Build relationships with employers and your LEP

If you aren’t doing so already, then start to contact local employers and arrange meetings to ask them directly what they want and need. All large employers will now be paying the apprenticeship levy, so this could be a door opener: could you help them deliver apprenticeships and make the most of their investment? Also, working closely with your local enterprise partnership will ensure that you fully understand what skills are needed in your area.

5 Should you specialise?

Being a jack of all trades might not be the best strategy any more. Specialising could cut your costs and help you to differentiate yourself in the marketplace.

Many of you will have seen the recent government announcement that five new national colleges will specialise in areas ranging from digital to high-speed rail. Could you do something similar? Consider what the demand is in your local marketplace and think about how your college’s strengths could map onto that. Reshape your business accordingly.

6 Think about your brand and market your business

You are going to be in competition with other colleges and training providers in your local area for business. To be successful, you’ll need to differentiate yourself and stand out from the crowd, both to learners and parents, and particularly to businesses. Be clear on what you stand for as an organisation, who your customers are and what you can offer; then market your business according to your strengths and make sure that your brand allows you to be seen by potential partners as a viable commercial organisation.

7 You don’t have to go it alone

Think about other organisations that you have synergies with that you could partner with. Another college? Or even an employer? Newham College has partnered very effectively with Samsung to meet the ever-growing needs of the local digital economy in East London. As a result, the college has been provided with state-of-the-art equipment and Samsung benefits from helping to develop the workforce of tomorrow.

Try not to fear these changes – look for the opportunities and grasp them. Further education is finally being recognised for its vital contribution to the UK economy – let’s take this chance to reshape our sector and show everyone what we can really do.

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