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

 

 

 

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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.

If:

  • 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?”
“Ten.”
“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.”
Etc.

  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)

and/or

  • 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

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.

FE isn’t a brand – and why that matters

Earlier this month the TES published a double-page spread (and splashed the story) about a six month study of further education reputation undertaken by Richard Gillingwater, of corporate communications agency Acrue Fulton.

In the article Richard ‘says FE’s national brand needs to be rebuilt, and unveils his plan to help the sector make people sit up and take notice’ (to quote the TES blurb).

While I applaud any media taking interest in further education and recognise Richard’s impeccable credentials, the available evidence suggests that it is impossible to rebuild the further education brand. That is because further education, with one important exception, is not a brand.

It is at best a sector and most probably a system.

There are numerous, occasionally conflicting, definitions of ‘brand’. It is one of those words, as Jerry McLaughlin delicately puts it, ‘that is widely used but unevenly understood’. Where academics and practitioners tend to agree is that a brand is a product, concept or service publically distinguished from other products, concepts or services. “A brand is what a firm, institution, or collection of products and services stands for in the hearts and minds of its target audience.”[1]

Brands, as the derivation from branding-iron suggests, are commonly expressed through the medium of a brand name, a trademark, a logo.

FE is not ‘publically distinguished’. It has no recognised logo, no trademark. More importantly, all but one of its target audiences (those who work in it) are insufficiently aware of it – who it serves, its constituent parts, its ‘key facts’ for want of a better phrase – for it to qualify as a brand.

In the past decade a handful of studies examining FE’s reputation have been commissioned. They all tell pretty much the same story – like this one from 2007. If you look under the bonnet of each of those studies, the respondents typically have some understanding of further education and FE as a concept[2]. Sometimes this is deliberate, as in the case of this 2012 study of FE employees.

To my knowledge (and according to reviews of available literature like this one from Anne Parfitt at Huddersfield Uni and this paper from David Roberts at the Knowledge Partnership) there has been no audit of further education’s reputation among a general population. By that I mean parents, students, prospective students, client and non-client employers. More basically, people who don’t work in organisations involved in the delivery or receipt of further education.

No such study has been commissioned, I’d suggest, because potential investors think it would be a waste of time and money. In 2011, the Association of Colleges and polling company ICM undertook a study of college reputations among such a general public. Two thirds of respondents thought Trinity College Cambridge was an FE college, and half said that colleges are still under local authority control and not inspected by Ofsted. In those other studies among ‘stakeholder’ audiences, respondents demonstrate a higher level of awareness of colleges than they do of FE. So it follows that a general public would demonstrate an even lower level of awareness of FE than they did of colleges in 2011.

You can undertake a completely unscientific test of this proposition yourself by asking three people who aren’t an FE lecturer, manager or service provider the question: “What is further education?” If any of the answers correspond, buy yourself a drink.

None of this is meant to detract from Richard Gillingwater’s research and points about FE reputation per se. It’s just that when it comes to branding, FE never made it onto the ranch. This matters, because if Government or its agencies (for instance) want to bolster reputations they should focus on FE’s constituent parts rather than the whole. And in doing so they should recognise that a strong brand depends on a minimal level of awareness – which, by the way, is why the continued, deliberate fragmentation of the term ‘college’ through the proliferation of new forms of institution is likely to prove so corrosive in the longer-term.

 

 

 

 

[1] A quote from Luc Speisser of Landon – whose 2012 blog entry on explaining a brand I would highly recommend.

[2] Take a look, for instance, at the list of respondents on page 3 of this 2007 study, commissioned from Ipsos Mori by then head of the Learning and Skills Council Mark Haysom (who, by the way, now writes critically acclaimed novels).

Who and what influences choice in further education?

In the past couple of years we have specialised in helping clients study attitude, awareness or behaviours among groups important to their organisation.

We also help clients adapt according to the results of the research.

Projects include studies for further education (FE) colleges – typically focusing on recruitment and seeking to help a client understand and respond to who and what influences student choice in their area.

We’ve found a number of patterns across our work in this field and thought that FE colleagues might find it useful if we set ten of them out here.

  1. The decline of the influencer. In 2012 a national study of students aged 11 to 21 and their parents (in which I was involved) indicated that parents exerted a high level of influence on student choice of institution[1]. In our subsequent studies on behalf of colleges – as the agency YouthSight suggests in relation to university applicants – the influence of other people on post-16 student choice of place of study appears to be in general decline. In our latest study (of a 3000+ population of higher education applicants to a large GFE) just under half of respondents said they had not been influenced by anyone. Where third parties do influence choice, mum and dad and family friends most commonly top the rankings.
  1. The rise of search. Online search is overtaking the prospectus as the channel applicants find the most useful for finding out about a prospective place of study. This shift and trend #1 are probably linked – rather than asking or expecting advice from friends or family on study options, students are more commonly actively searching online for institutions which fit their requirements. So colleges need to know what information potential applicants are looking for in order to make an informed decision, and ensure it is easy to find on their website. Online search is commonly also the most useful channel for applicants who have yet to commit to an institution and want more information – so keeping a website up to date may be the most effective ‘keep warm’ tactic for any college. Online search, by the way, dominates where full cost recovery provision is concerned. Social media discussions, adverts and newspaper articles are typically cited as the least useful sources of information about a prospective place of study. 
  1. The power of course. A good reputation for teaching is, typically, the third most important factor for 16+ students considering where to study. Locational factors – where a college is based and the transport network which feeds it – are commonly cited as the second most important factor. Course most regularly tops the rankings. Students may compromise on sports opportunities, on the time taken to travel, on the way buildings look or the facilities within them, but they are unlikely to make concessions on the subject and type of course they want to study. Which highlights the importance of teaching excellence and market research for colleges – while providing another depressing piece of evidence for those of us concerned about the black hole that is schools-based careers advice. 
  1. Gender differences in influence. Where we have explored this issue, we’ve seen notable differences in the way males and females make decisions about where to study. In crude summary, female applicants to further education courses are more discerning – they commonly take more factors into account than males when considering their options. They are also more likely to be informed in their institutional choice by school or college tutors than their male counterparts, who are more inclined to be influenced by friends. 
  1. Hedging bets. This phenomenon first came to light in a study we undertook of a population of 7000 students who applied to a college but enrolled elsewhere in early 2013. 20% of applicants considered the college as a ‘back-up’ choice. In the majority of cases, according to qualitative responses, they were encouraged by school tutors to apply to more than one institution. There appears to be a corresponding general growth in the number of institutions applied to – but we haven’t adequately tested that proposition to be sure. There are ramifications for conversion rates here, and related expectations about the effectiveness and performance of recruitment activities. 
  1. Last-minute change of mind. In the same piece of research, 10% of applicants changed their mind about the course they wanted to study in the period between applying to college/s and enrolling. This change of mind lead to a change of institution (because, as we have seen, course is the most important factor in choice, and in the case of this 10% they – rightly or wrongly – didn’t think the college in question delivered the course they had now settled on). Which means that colleges need to make applicants aware of the broad range of courses available (or at least of the mechanism for finding out), even if an applicant seems pretty sure about what she wants to do with the rest of her life. 
  1. Uncommon applications. Looking for ‘insurance’ offers may sound more like the behaviour of a university applicant than a prospective college student. Whereas university applicants have a system in place – UCAS – to standardise those applications, that is not the case for (non-HE) college applicants. The differences in the application processes between colleges and schools can be confusing, and the more students ‘shop around’ the more puzzling it can be. In one study among non-enrolled applicants, a significant minority expressed low levels of awareness of the particular hoops – application, assessment, interview or audition – that constituted the application process according to course type. Setting out the college processes – including what applicants can expect in terms of entry requirements, timings for interviews and communications from the college – in ways that are easy for applicants to understand is clearly important.
  2. Silence is goodbye.  We are sometimes asked to test (via mystery shopping or quantitative research) if open day, interview and enrolment practices are up to scratch. Where colleges most commonly ‘lose’ applicants it is in the period between application and interview, when the responsibility for a prospective student is passed from (say) a central recruitment or marketing department to administrators in a school or course area responsible for booking interviews. Where there is a delay in an application (say, prior to interview) most students do not follow this up – they assume they have not got a place. Similarly, where there is no response after an interview, most have been offered a place at another college or school, and they don’t chase the college in question either but apply elsewhere. The impact of poorly managed communications is clear.
  1. But goodbye may not be forever. In two separate studies this year (2014) we’ve asked non-enrolled applicants whether they would be interested in hearing about courses at the institution they rejected for another. In both cases a significant minority said they would. A majority of alumni, asked a similar question, were interested in further study. When applicants reject an institution in favour of another it does not necessarily mean they have a low opinion of that college – it may be a case of right place, wrong time. Or that the course they wanted to study was not available. These results also hint that FE alumni networks may be significant and (as yet) overlooked sources of recruitment.
  2. The timing of communications matter. The majority of our education research is undertaken among groups of students aged between 16 and 21. We have experimented with different methodologies depending on the client, the geography and types of students. Generally speaking, research is most fruitful when we’re contacting respondents by mobile phone between 5pm and 8pm. Where colleges are able to raise an expectation among student groups that they may be asked to take part in research, the response rate is (much) better. There are ramifications for data management and protection and communications planning here.

[1]Parent Power Dominates Education Choices’ – Chartered Institute of Public Relations Education and Skills Group.