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