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

 

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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.