A student being stabbed to death on college premises, a disastrous Ofsted inspection or a principal being investigated on suspicion of fraud are just some of the worst-case scenarios that can ruin a college’s reputation.
The damage done by PR disasters at individual institutions affects the perception of further education in general, according to communications experts. And, amid concerns that the sector’s reputation is not strong enough at a national level, the Association of Colleges (AoC) is now establishing a working group to improve the way FE promotes itself.
Aaron Hussey, the organisation’s director of communications, says that his team deals with several calls every week from colleges seeking advice on how to protect their reputations.
He remarks that FE’s reputation “isn’t as strong as it needs to be”, with many people not seeing it as an option for them; and he warns that “one of the issues is that people see us as the second choice”.
Show them the money
Hussey explains that one of the things that the new group will be doing “is working on shaping the offer and the messaging around what colleges do in the 21st century and why they are so important locally and nationally”.
The biggest reputational issue threatening further education is financial viability, according to Dr Alison Birkinshaw, AoC president. “Financial health is really, really important in establishing a strong reputation,” she says. “Local businesses want to work with an organisation which not only can deliver the skills and provide really great customer service, but they want to know that that organisation can invest in the skills and the staff they need.”
Dr Birkinshaw adds: “If the headlines are that a college is in trouble or that mergers are happening because the college is in financial difficulty, then our key stakeholders are going to say, ‘Hang on a minute, am I wise in investing my education in or trusting my education to a sector that is finding it tricky?’”
Data from the Education and Skills Funding Agency reveals that almost half (48 per cent) of colleges were running at a loss in 2016-17, up from 38 per cent the year before. To date, the ESFA has issued warning notices over financial health or control to more than one in seven FE colleges.
With mounting fears that some colleges will no longer be financially viable, the government is bringing in an insolvency regime for FE later this year.
Alison Tobin, chair of the education and skills committee at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, says: “The profile of FE has grown significantly over the years because of extensive government interest and investment in apprenticeships, which means maintaining reputation has never been so important.”
She adds: “Most FE colleges are doing a fantastic job in difficult times, with budgets that have been seriously eroded over the last few years. Sadly, when a college runs into difficulties, it can impact the whole sector.”
Colleges need to ensure they have “a robust crisis strategy in place, be transparent and honest, say how they are going to put things right, make sure they do what they say, and ensure they analyse and learn from what has happened once the crisis is over”, according to Ms Tobin.
Honesty is key, agrees Martin Doel, Further Education Trust for Leadership professor of leadership in FE and skills at the UCL Institute of Education. “Don’t tell lies, and represent yourselves in an honest and straightforward way,” he suggests.
FE institutions face a range of risks to their reputation, “often relating to the teaching and treatment of large numbers of young adults,” according to Matt Cartmell, deputy director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association. “If something does go wrong, there are three points that I would recommend: agree a position and react quickly; apologise if it is necessary; and explain the steps that you will take to ensure that this never ever happens again,” he says.