Why strategic communication and public relations should be at the heart of merger and ABR planning

By Ben Verinder (Chalkstream Communications) and Fiona Carthy (Carthy Communications)

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Experience and guidance are clear – if colleges focus on the process rather than the people in their plans for partnerships or mergers, there is a significant risk they will fail or at best, make an already difficult process more fraught. Successful change requires the support and consent of others and that means ­­­meaningful consultation and professional, two-way communication.

Questions such as ‘what is our purpose?’ and ‘what are our long term aims?’ have communication at their heart and are reliant on consent and support. This can only be gained through healthy relationships and trust which are built on clear, consistent and open communication.

Sadly, poorly managed communication and fragmented messaging is all too common in the world of merger, and this risks seriously undermining the success of the proposals and damaging existing reputations and relationships along the way.

Recent examples include colleges that have brought private partnership discussions prematurely into the public eye before agreements have been met, and merging institutions issuing contradictory public statements, each putting delicate negotiations in peril.

In Scotland we can see the legacy of mergers that failed to achieve the consent of vital stakeholders in the emergence of unprecedented levels of industrial action and discontent.

Analysis of over 135 post-incorporation mergers in England reveals that success requires high-quality leadership at the planning and decision-making stage of merger, which in turn requires absolute clarity on the purpose of the change, and as stated by BIS ‘an ability to reinforce the purpose constantly across all internal and external communications’.

Yet we see colleges treating communication as an after-thought or insufficiently important to require professional attention, manifested as shallow consultation about a narrow range of options or broadcast messaging once a decision has been made.

There needs to be a clear educational and economic case for a partnership or merger proposal (whether that be to merge or remain independent), one that has developed from a realistic assessment of local social and economic need and through genuine consultation with all key stakeholders internal and external alike.

A clear mission needs to be established, particularly when there are conflicting perspectives from each organisation. Internal dialogue needs to take place in private and a clear public position agreed. This is where strategic public relations comes into its own, helping to reconcile the differing agendas and manage internal and external expectations. It helps a new or emerging board or leadership team sift through the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself a symptom of nervousness, to draw a clear conclusion based on the intelligence that matters.

It is also critical to build an understanding of the market position and the reputation of all colleges in the proposal, to start developing a future positioning strategy and that can only be genuinely assessed through impartial research with target audiences.

This assessment of reputation is also useful for area based review submissions, where colleges are seeking to establish a stand-alone position. What is the strength of your brand and reputation? How much brand awareness is there in the community – what will that look like post-merger? As outlined in the Furthering Reputations report in 2009: “Reputation is the product of cumulative activity and evaluation and once earned it has a resilient quality. This is why a good reputation is technically an asset”. How much assessment of the value of reputation is going into discussions and what is this based on? The colleges’ own perceptions or those of the community it serves?

Corporate reputation is closely aligned to the quality of its staff and their commitment to and engagement with the organisation. As most mergers will rely on their middle managers to pave the way – smoothing the clash of systems, processes and cultures into a new harmonised way of operating, open and consultative communication will pave the way to retaining the best people – whereas latent, directive communication could lead to an exodus of quality staff potentially fracturing quality, outputs and in turn community perception and reputation.

And finally to the issue of brand and market position – with a clear mission in place the merged entities can start to form the basis for a new value proposition to the market. This can be achieved either through the maintenance (and development) of existing brands or the introduction of a new brand or group entity.

There is huge opportunity to establish a new, stronger, revitalised market position through merger and the rejuvenation of brand position – but this is needs to be strategically managed and communicated not just through visual representation but more importantly through messaging, online and offline communication and internal values and behaviours.

Join our webinar at 2pm on Thursday 7th July  where we will be providing best practice guidance on strategic communication through merger and ABR. Click here to register.

Recommended reading

Association of Colleges. (April 2016) An analysis of college merger issues

Calvert, N. and Rosner, M. (2010) Understanding FE mergers and making them work, LSN

Learning and Skills Council and Centre for Education and Industry, University of Warwick. (2003) An Evaluation of Mergers in the Further Education Sector: 1996-2000

Payne, L. (2008) The Evidence Base on College Size and Mergers in the Further Education Sector, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills

Roberts, D. and Thompson L. (2009) Furthering Reputations, Knowledge Partnership

Stewart, G. (2003) College Mergers: Lessons to be learned from other sectors, Research in post-compulsory education, Volume 8, Number 3





Successful HE in FE recruitment – what can research tell us?

Our work includes research and consultancy projects that help further education colleges boost their recruitment to higher education courses.

In the past three years we have worked with a range of clients on HE in FE research projects and below we set out five conclusions that are common across all of the studies and which resonate with the wider literature.

  1. Focus on internal progression – but only where progress is possible

It is a well-known maxim that marketing to an unfamiliar group or audience requires around ten times as much effort to achieve the same results as when marketing to a group that is familiar. Which is one reason why colleges are wise to focus their HE recruitment efforts towards their current Level 3 cohort. (Another being the large number of Level 3 students served by most colleges that also deliver higher education). However, communicating HE opportunities to students for whom there is no natural progression route from Level 3 to Level 4 is typically a waste of time and energy. This is a truism, but colleges still commonly fail to differentiate or focus their efforts. Worse still, there are institutions where Level 3 tutors actively criticise the quality of the Level 4 provision and enthusiastically recommend alternatives to their students even where internal progression pathways exist. No marketing activity will resolve the quality issues at play here.

  1. Course is the dominant factor in institution selection

As the excellent research underpinning the Government’s 2012 ‘higher education in further education’ paper demonstrates, students who study a higher education course in a college setting are primarily motivated to do so by considerations of career[1]. Their choice of course is determined, most commonly, by a mix of personal interest in the subject matter and judgments about how helpful this particular course will be in furthering that career. (The mix differs according to age and mode of study). In our research and the literature, choice of institution is dominated by course, followed by location. Which is why marketing to internal or external students for whom no progression pathway exists is so pointless.

No matter how much someone likes a college, they won’t spend two or three years studying there if they do not think the course is right for them.

It is also why researching the higher education ambitions of a Level 3 cohort is such a valuable exercise, as it can provide immediate, robust evidence as to how a college might enhance its HE curriculum and who constitutes the internal market.

  1. Taking into account the different types of HE in FE students – gender and mode of study

There exist significant differences within the HE in FE cohort. Those taking Foundation degrees are most likely to be female, aged under 20 and studying full-time. Conversely HNC/HND students are most likely to be male, to be studying part-time while in full-time employment. Course preferences differ by gender. Students sponsored by their employer are typically differently motivated and face different barriers to those whose course is funded by a loan. The mix of student types differs by institution.

According to our own studies, what students want and expect from a college higher education course, and how their view is formed before they arrive, differs according to gender and the type of course on which they are enrolling. For instance, female applicants typically take more factors into account, making a more ‘considered’ assessment when choosing HE institutions, than males. In some cases, attitudes differ according to where students lived when they applied to study.

  1. Barriers vs motivating factors

In our studies and in the BIS research, over two-thirds of HE in FE students do not apply anywhere else apart from to the college where they are studying. Where choices are constrained, they are largely limited by students’ unwillingness or inability to study away from home because of the living and travel costs (rather than the tuition fees) or because of work and domestic commitments. In other words, there are typically two key factors driving choice for this group, one of them positive and the other negative:

‘This is the right course for me and I cannot afford to study it away from home’.

Older students, married students, white students, students with low entry-level qualifications, are less likely to have made other applications, generally because they are less likely to have also applied to universities.  Those most likely to also apply to universities are aged under 20, single, white, and come from families where at least one parent has had some experience of higher education. For these students, what attracts them to a college over a university is most commonly the smaller college class size.[2]

In order for their HE in FE campaigns to succeed, colleges need to understand the composition of their cohort and their target market, shaping their campaigns around their particular motivators, influencers, barriers and preferred channels.

  1. Validation matters

Our research, and the literature, shows that a significant proportion of HE in FE students value the ‘university’ brand associated with their Foundation or Bachelor’s degree.

Indeed the BIS research suggests, rather alarmingly, that 10% of HE in FE students actually think are studying at a university.

This phenomenon has ramifications for colleges looking to gain foundation or teaching degree awarding powers and for the development of a central validation service. It is also, presumably, the reason why colleges seek validation agreements with universities, even though the latter have a habit of pulling out of those agreements at short notice, to the considerable inconvenience of the former.

[1] Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, ‘Understanding higher education in further education colleges, BIS Research Paper Number 69’, 2012, Chapter 5.

[2] ibid, p.135.

Employer engagement in education – six common mistakes

We help universities and colleges improve their relationships with business.

The work typically involves a mix of qualitative and quantitative research among existing business customers and the wider market, and consultancy to help make positive changes as a result.

In our work and the literature we’ve identified six common systemic mistakes that both colleges and universities make in managing their relationships with business.

We thought it might be helpful to highlight them here.

  1. Circumscribing the relationship (aka being shy)

A common thread that runs through every piece of research we have undertaken on this topic is the perception among a (sometimes significant) minority of respondents that the education institution in question is underplaying the relationship.

This can manifest itself, as it did during a study about higher skills in London, as colleges teaching construction students on day release over a number of years but failing (to the bafflement of the employers involved) to engage in a broader conversation about training needs, or outline what the colleges could offer in meeting current and future training needs that the companies may have.

Or, in a more recent study, engineering businesses hire college apprenticeships and want to sponsor lecturer CPD in order to improve the quality of teaching but are kept at arm’s length.

In the higher education sector, one of the best recent examples of this phenomenon was the reluctance of universities to reengage with research users as part of the Research Excellence Framework (as highlighted by the excellent RAND report).[1] Universities felt ‘embarrassed to approach people for evidence, particularly as it made our relations feel transactional’. Businesses, on the other hand, were typically very happy to talk about how they had put that research into practice.

  1. Applying recruitment marketing to business relationships

It’s so obvious as to be self-evident, but human resources directors don’t think or behave like students. They have very different needs, are influenced by different groups and use different communication channels. Yet we commonly see insufficient differentiation between student recruitment and business communication – B2B media strategies, for instance, that focus on general regional publications and eschew the specialist press that may well be an HR director’s first port of call when thinking of training. Or tonal problems, in which the educator focuses on the output benefits of training (such as individual competencies) rather than the outcomes for the business (such as the positive impact on productivity or profit, demonstrable through testimonial or case study).

  1. Making business engagement structurally incidental

In previous decades it was not uncommon for college and newer university employer engagement staff to be physically dislocated from the main campus – housed in a soulless business park somewhere down a motorway corridor.

Although those staff are much more likely to have been rehomed among faculties, where the cultural divide remains, the effects are the same.


  • business engagement does not have a seat at the top table (physically and metaphorically)
  • the training arm brand is deliberately kept at a distance from that of the institution
  • engagement is sporadic and departmental rather than corporate

…then the institution will commonly:

  • fail to maximise on a heritage that is typically appealing to the business customer (who may well place value on the fact that you were established by a particular Guild, that you have been serving a community for over a hundred years or that you taught her grandfather).
  • be exposed to significant risk when it comes to knowledge transfer and sustainability of relationships (when the head of hospitality leaves for another university, college or training provider).
  • see teaching staff take their lead from the senior team and treat the business development team as a second-class ‘support’ function.
  1. Equating customer relationship management with a piece of software

“How many people there in your business development team?”
“How many people do you employ?”
“785 FTE.”
“Do you have a CRM system?”
“Yes, it’s excellent”
“Who uses it to record business contact details, histories and prospects?”
“Just the business development team.”

  1. Confusing LMI with business intelligence

A college or university would be very unlikely to favour broad-brush regional data about lecturers over the results of its own staff survey when using research to inform its HR strategy.

But something similar sometimes happens in employer engagement. While labour market information can be a superbly useful planning tool, particularly in the early stages of curriculum development, some institutions behave as if it is a viable proxy for talking directly to business about training needs.  It is not.

  1. Working against culture

Strong relationships with employers improve the relevance of curricula and propel students into jobs. They help diversify income and thus reduce an organisations’ dependency on the taxpayer.

But that doesn’t mean they will be important to staff.

If, as is common in both colleges and universities:

  • an organisations’ heritage and mission have been built around serving a particular community (of young or unemployed or incarcerated students, for instance)
  • teaching staff form the dominant coalition within that organisation
  • and employment contracts are commonly focused on what might be described as traditional teaching practice

…then it’s no surprise that attempts to shift the culture into an entrepreneurial gear fail.

To put it another way, if a workforce is motivated to get out of bed in the morning for a particular reason (as is the case for college staff, for instance, with remarkable homogeneity – 75% of whom go to work ‘to make a difference to people’s lives’) then trying to persuade them that they need to change their working practices in order to improve the bottom line for business is not going to work.

The challenge here is to:

  • make a persuasive case for change shaped around how professional employer engagement supports those things your workforce cares about (i.e. the students)


  • hire different people on different contracts to deliver employer engagement while identifying (and implementing)
    1. the basic behaviours required of the workforce as a whole to support that effort
    2. the central resource needed for professional, corporate (in the widest sense) communication and engagement.

[1] Manville, C et al (2014), Preparing impact submissions for REF 2014: An evaluation, RAND Corporation for HEFCE


Mordor, Middle Earth and Mergers: A tale of why communication matters

Sometimes it is very hard to distinguish between fact and fiction.

According to one group of contacts, the outlook for further education is particularly bleak. In this version of events, area reviews sweep the land like the eye of Sauron. The fellowships of FE are to be usurped by a swathe of expedient mergers, which will feel (for one side at least) like a siege, rather than a marriage of venerable houses.

Among other manager and teacher friends, these dour predictions are little more than high fantasy. The area review process is an unfortunate distraction. Mergers have long been a feature of the landscape and reviews will not, for practical and economic reasons, lead to a significant increase in their number. Institutional autonomy will hold fast. As Samwise Gamgee says: “But in the end it’s only a passing thing, this shadow.”

I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. It does look likely that the rate of merger will accelerate, although we cannot be certain when or where this will happen for the right reasons (i.e. to better meet student, community and employer need and improve opportunities for staff).

However it is clear – from the literature and recent history – that where mergers in both further and higher education have been unsuccessful, there are a number of common factors.

Firstly, unrealistic expectations bear down on the enterprise like an army of orcs. Mergers are likely to disappoint those looking for savings in the short and medium term, and those who underestimate the challenge of integrating two recently distinct organisations. Failure to manage those expectations can lead to untimely intervention from funders, governing bodies and regulators.

Secondly, as one college Principal recently wrote, ‘the risk of the weaker institution acting as a drag on the stronger in terms of teaching and learning performance is substantial’. We have seen very strong colleges for instance, led by capable teams, badly injured in the effort of dragging another off the field of combat.

Thirdly, they fall victim to ‘poorly managed post-deal integration’ – lack of appropriate planning and poor strategy and management[1]. Under this heading I would include poor communication and the inability to express a clear vision.

Where mergers proceed, institutions must set out a strong educational case[2] – otherwise they are unlikely to persuade their key publics (staff and students primarily) that it is the right thing to do.

But merging institutions often struggle to make this case. Sometimes there just isn’t one to be made. Sometimes the consultation stage is too shallow to provide any robust evidence either for or against the merger and the opportunity is lost. Or in Tolkien’s words: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”

And sometimes the institutions involved simply do not possess the capacity to communicate effectively in such challenging circumstances.

It’s tough. We are bringing together a group of communication experts, all of whom have first-hand experience of mergers, to help institutions overcome the communication and relationship management challenges that they will face.

These include creating and relaying consistent messages at a time when boards or leadership teams want to bring different agendas to the table. At the very point when employees are anxious and management teams are changing, those leading the process need to deliver stability and reassurance while retaining trust through timely, open and honest communication.

Unfamiliar structures – including regional boards and interim leadership groups – add another layer of complexity. The pressures of leadership, momentum, mission, unity, quality and due diligence threaten to relegate communication to an afterthought.

Among the noise of misinformation and speculation, itself often a symptom of the nervousness of key groups, colleges and universities can miss the opportunity to provide an alternative to negative narratives (the institution as victim) or to retain valued heritage rather than abandon it in the rush to create a new organisation.

The most significant challenges typically materialise after a merger; managing the cultural differences between previously competing institutions and minimising the disruption to employees of physical relocation and procedural changes, requires careful, considered and professional two-way internal communication.

Nevertheless some mergers succeed where, for instance, consultation is effective, ethical, and informative, institutions focus on engagement and retention, understand the risks in under-communicating with employees and place a premium on the individual without distracting from the day-job. “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” says Galadriel. The outlook is not necessarily desolate.


[1] BIS, ‘Current models of collaboration – Post 14 Further Education’, June 2015

[2] Oakleigh Consulting Limited, ‘Literature review for the higher education collaborations, alliances and mergers project’, HEFCE, 2010

Why publicity is public relations (and it’s all inherently amoral)

It is ethics month at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and to mark the occasion I finally got round to reading Robert Phillips’ ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’.

As Stuart Bruce suggests in his review, it’s a book about much more than public relations – consumerism, sustainability and modern politics, to name a few monster themes.

Nevertheless, as Stephen Waddington also points out, it usefully rehearses the big challenges facing public relations as a consequence of media fragmentation and important changes to the way we defer and trust (of which, as a former Edelman consumer CEO, Phillips is well versed).

However it repeats two important fallacies about PR – one relating to how it is practised, the other to ethics. These also happen to be the source of much modern criticism of public relations. So, in defence of practice, I was spurred to write this post.

Affirming the consequent

Phillips’ central theme is that PR is a servant of unchecked consumerism and ‘hard wired to promote wants over needs’. He says many other negative things about PR but this one is particularly hard to swallow because it’s patently not true. (Just take a look at War on Want’s description of itself – working in partnerships to empower people, running campaigns, mobilising support, building alliances, raising public awareness. Sounds suspiciously like public relations to me.)

But Phillips has already played his get out of jail free card on page 5. By PR he really means consumer public relations, the suggestion* being that consumer PR is so dominant as to be synonymous with PR and other types of activity are a minority sport. His Jericho Chambers chairman pithily equates PR with ‘blowing smoke up the jacksy of late capitalism’…which leaves one to wonder whether, with old friends like these, does PR need any enemies?

This is a version of an old argument – cited by Phillips and made by Tom Watson in 2013 and much earlier by Tim Traverse-Healy in 1988 – that public relations and publicity, particularly editorial publicity in support of a brand, are different things.

Phillips’ points about the ills of ‘late’ capitalism seem very sensible. Contemporary measures of economic and societal well-being are, by and large, nuts.  We equate increasing levels of consumption with success but our resources are finite. Equally Professor Watson is a leading light on evaluation and measurement and Tim Traverse-Healy wrote the Credo for public relations, which for me is about as wise an aspiration for the PR profession as anyone could wish for.

But they are wrong about brand publicity. We might read about Sweatygate and wish they were right, but that doesn’t make it so. Editorial publicity, media relations, in the service of whatever sector or industry, is part of the public relations tool kit whether we like it or not. And just because it was traditionally the dominant methodology of practitioners working for organisations trying to sell us things we don’t really need does not alter that fact.

The argument about brand publicity involves a common error which, in the language of philosophical logic, is called ‘affirming the consequent’. An example of which is:

All London buses are red.
This is red.
Therefore it must be a London bus.

(When of course being red isn’t a property exclusive to London buses).

In this case the argument goes:

All bad PR is brand publicity.
This is brand publicity.
Therefore it must be bad PR.

Not necessarily, as any press officer for a ‘big brand’ charity would no doubt point out.

That’s not to say that Professor Watson’s wider point about differentiating (via membership criterion, say) between types of practitioners is wrong. He rightly points out that the majority of PR practitioners are not (and presumably don’t want to be) members of any professional body. We also know that the majority of CIPR members, sadly, think that professionalism is above all about pleasing clients. But in these trade versus profession tectonics, brand publicity is not the fault line.

To assign ethics to a discipline is to make a category mistake

Phillips also makes some very astute points about honesty, accountability, trust and empowerment and in doing so shines a light on the dishonesty, evasion and abuses of trust exercised by public relations practitioners in the service of, typically, corporate masters. The book is peppered with (partially redacted) anecdotes of unethical behaviours. Yet to assign ethics to public relations in itself is to make a category mistake,surely? I might use a hammer to help build a home for refugees. Alternatively I might use it to hit someone on the head and steal their purse, but in neither case does the hammer have any ethical properties. It is amoral.

There’s not enough space here to argue about definitions of public relations but (as in the CIPR’s) it is commonly described in terms of a discipline or an effort. The CIPR goes further and says that, to be public relations, that discipline should be used to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics. There’s nothing intrinsically ethical here. I might use my public relations skills to maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between my International League of Litter Droppers and its members, for instance.

We should call out bullshit and lies because they are a) unethical and thus disadvantageous to clients and/or the wider public b) typically bad PR and c) tarnish the reputation of our profession.  We should abide by the codes of conduct for the same reasons. But the prescriptions and proscriptions enshrined within those codes apply to our behaviours in the practice of public relations and not PR/public relations per se.

*(I use the term ‘suggested’ above as it is never wholly clear which target – PR or public relations – Phillips has in his sights. He purposefully uses the term PR as a proxy for consumer public relations in order to support his main premise, that it is a prop for the ugly architecture of capitalism. But the marketing for the book takes a very different tact).

Four findings from research on employers and apprenticeships

Over the summer we conducted three separate research projects for different clients on the subject of apprenticeships.

While each project was tailored to the client and included different elements – such as a major catchment area review in one and lead generation in another – they all included detailed qualitative research among (different types of) employers.

What I personally find most interesting are the similarities between projects. Here are four trends, and why we think they are important:

  1. Creating a typology of organisations most likely to take on apprentices is difficult – for a good reason

Pages 18 to 27 of  BIS research paper 204  from December 2014 provide a detailed profile of the types of apprenticeship employer; the paper also includes data on what employers will look like in the future (as does the UKCES Employer Perspectives Survey 2014). It is tempting for individual providers to think that their local or regional profile will match this national data.

That is very unlikely because:

  1. Individual catchment areas don’t typically mirror England in terms of industrial sectors and it is (the patterns of) these sectors that most heavily influence what apprenticeship provision looks like.
  2. When you are researching at a smaller scale it becomes quickly very clear that organisational culture, personal experiences of apprenticeships, the frequency of junior vacancies and preconceptions of how young people behave are as important as organisational structure when it comes to predicting propensity to take on an apprentice.

To put it another way, among supporters of apprentices there’s typically a commitment that extends beyond the practical. While (in our research and the literature) businesses are most commonly hiring apprentices in order to fill specific current or projected skills gaps (and generally not, by the way, in order to get hold of cheap labour) the decision-makers very often want to get involved because they or the wider business has an affinity with youth development or workforce diversity as social issues – and they believe apprenticeships are a positive force in this regard.

There are two reasons why we would argue that it is imperative providers understand this distinction. Firstly, it’s vital to understand how practical drivers for taking on an apprentice differ from the emotive in order to tailor marketing communications and your broader employer engagement. Ultimately people make decisions, not business units. Secondly, this passion that apprentice employers display provides a major opportunity for providers; which of these might volunteer to help improve your tutor CPD or provide equipment in kind in order to ensure their apprentices are getting the highest quality training?

  1. Apprentices (and providers) are ambassadors in more ways than you might think

We were particularly struck during all three projects by the extent to which the views of decision-makers were shaped by their previous experience of individual apprentices. This included businesses who had never employed an apprentice but whose HR directors, say, had worked in one who had. More surprising still was the influence of training provider sales teams and the frequency across all three projects in which employers said that their view of apprenticeships as a concept had been negatively affected by pushy, poorly-informed sales teams. In this respect, all providers are in this together and your competitors are shaping your reputation.

  1. Understanding the word does not mean businesses understand the concept

A simple view of Google trends will demonstrate the growth in public awareness of apprenticeships as a term. This does not necessarily translate into understanding in any detail. Confusion among businesses not currently employing apprentices (85% of organisations nationally) was widespread in our studies, with a particularly noticeable propensity to conflate apprenticeships and internships. Awareness of higher apprenticeships was markedly low and again this is borne out by the literature. There is obviously still much work to be done in this regard despite the very laudable efforts of Government, agencies and PR consultancies over the past decade. This point is related to our findings at #1 – if first-hand experience of an apprentice is a major driver of awareness and opinion and the vast majority of organisations do not yet employ an apprentice, it’s not much of a surprise.

  1. Population change as a short-term threat

There is a lot of talk in HE circles at the moment about the impact of the big drop in the youth population up to 2020 on university recruitment – the population of UK 18-year-olds is set to fall by around 80,000 (11%) by that time. There appears to be less noise in relation to apprenticeships but it’s just as big an issue in terms of under 19 and, later on, 19+ apprenticeship recruitment. If you are a college or training provider and not taking population change into account in your planning you’re probably making a big mistake.

The tyranny of Eduspeak – how jargon and acronym corrode understanding and reputation

In 2008 a charity called the Learning and Skills Network published a guide to improving communication within the further education sector.

‘It’s a communication jungle out there’ reported the results of a survey of just under 1000 further education lecturers, support staff and managers. The vast majority of respondents felt that jargon and acronyms were far too common and inhibited effective communication.

As the then Chief Executive John Stone wrote (with admirable clarity), the findings posed a challenge to departments, agencies and educators. “[They] show that jargon isn’t just an annoyance; it’s a genuine problem that acts as a real barrier to understanding….At its worst, this shared language can colour our communications with communities, employers and even learners – ultimately shutting out the very people we exist to serve.”

What has changed? Not much, it seems. Fresh jargon and acronyms blossom across agency, department, college and private provider communication like annuals in summer. Perennials return; ‘NEETS’ (Not in Education, Employment or Training) and ‘blended learning’ were among the various banes of 2007, still growing strong today.

The problem, of course, is not exclusive to further education. As a relatively new primary school governor I find this new blend of Eduspeak[i] – from SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) to CAFs (Common Assessment Frameworks) and SENCOs (Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators) – a constant challenge. Higher and secondary education have their own argot, of course.

Teaching is a specialised profession. As is research. The management of institutions that educate people typically requires a team of diverse professionals, from accountants to facilities managers, human resources practitioners to caterers (in some settings now referred to as ‘midday supervisors’, as if they were The Guardians of Noon). It would be naïve to suggest that these groups should and would not develop a professional lexicon. The problems start when – as the Learning and Skills Network study showed – exclusivity inhibits understanding.

A 2012 study of further education employees revealed that one of the main aspirations that teaching staff have for their management teams was that they ‘protect’ the institution from Government policy changes (and the language they come wrapped in). I read John Stone’s use of ‘learner’ with a wry smile; I would argue that the word is a fine example of a failure to protect, of the linguistic imperialism successfully employed by dominant coalitions.

‘Learner’ is commonly used by Government and agencies as a unit of measurement or summation – from ‘learner participation statistics’ to ‘learner voice’. It has now been assimilated into the vocabularies of further education institutions; colleges use it with, to, about and for their students. The problem is – it is jargon. A bean counter’s word, algorithmic, denominational and a barrier to meaning. You can test this by walking into a pub or a corner shop and starting a conversation about education. Count the minutes until someone – excepting the presence of a tired looking lady who teaches in further education – uses the word ‘learner’. You will wait a long time. Moreover, it can alienate; in the (admittedly few) studies we have undertaken which include a question on the subject, a sizeable majority of post-16 respondents prefer to be called (surprise, surprise) ‘students’.  Yet many spend this stage of their education being labelled with a term they do not prefer. If you don’t believe me, try a straw poll among your …ahem….students.

Life gets even harder when a school, college, university, agency or Government tries to communicate with people who neither receive nor work in education.

“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavour to be what you desire to appear,” said Socrates. Or, in the words of Steven Covey: “What we are communicates far more eloquently than anything we say or do.”

Language that obscures meaning poses problems for reputation in the way that Socrates and Covey describe it. It is hard to be authentic when no-one understands what you are trying to be. For example, over half of the general public mistakenly think that further education colleges are still under local authority control. It is one of a number of challenges colleges face as a result of widespread misunderstanding of terms like FE and ‘further education’ and it matters because these misconstructions power the reputations of institutions among important publics like parents, press and politicians. These in turn power staff and student recruitment, funding, sponsorship, the policy environment and the melee of other influences that determine what matters most – the quality of education.

These aren’t sixth form centres. They are sixth form colleges. (But the sub-editor that wrote the headline either does not understand the difference or thinks her readership does not.) These aren’t bogus colleges. They are, typically, private language schools. This fantastic paper by the late David Watson highlights common category mistakes made in relation to higher education[ii]. The ‘appalling ignorance among decision makers’ about the world of further education as reported by Helena Kennedy does not exclusively relate to their educational experience. It is in part fuelled by a system still overburdened with qualifications and the jargon that surrounds them. A-level. Degree. GCSE. Got it. BTEC, FD, HNC, HND, NVQ, SVQ, functional skills, traineeships….not so clear.

There is nothing like enough space here to address all the ways in which a college, university or school might improve understanding and aid clarity. But here are three suggestions to start with:

Firstly, test the manner in which you communicate with those with whom you are communicating. For a large organization this might involve qualitative and quantitative research among those groups most important to you[iii]. For a little primary school it might be a few minutes at a coffee morning asking parents if they understood this letter or that policy and if not, why not. At worst, supply or suggest a glossary.

Secondly, use the professional expertise at hand. If you are a college or university and you have a communications team, it is likely to include someone with professional copywriting experience or qualifications, most commonly gained during an earlier career as a journalist. Are they involved in auditing internal and external communications and, if so, with what level of autonomy and impact? Typically schools – though blessed with experts in the application of English – may have to be more creative as regards this type of audit.

Thirdly, and most importantly, be as suspicious of those neologisms and neophilisms as your bones tell you to be. The exciting new initiative announced by the Minister this morning – whether it is a TechBac, EBacc or Teaching Excellence Framework – will suffer from reputation lag. It could be years before internal and external audiences understand the concepts that underpin them. (Colleges bear witness to this every time they are referred to as ‘The Tech’). Or to put it another way, whither the Diploma?[iv]The jargon and acronyms used to decorate these initiatives will further hinder a common understanding. Accordingly, institutions that uncritically welcome the new with open arms and adopt without reflection the language in which they are packaged do their staff, students and broader communities a great disservice.


[i] I am a hypocrite. In using the phrase Eduspeak I am of course sacrificing clarity on the altar of vanity, trying to look smart with a nod to George Orwell. Moreover I am guilty of using jargon and acronyms in my professional career – although I am now trying to kick the habit.

[ii] Which includes a dissection and argument against the use of the term ‘sector’ – a sin I have committed here. It’s a hard habit to kick.

[iii] ’Key publics’ in public relations terminology. There I go again.

[iv] This is particularly hypocritical rhetoric, given that I was involved in supporting a national promotional campaign for that qualification.