With many colleges having seen a drop in applications for the 2011/12 academic year, this will be a significant opportunity for the 143 further education colleges that receive extra degree places.
Falling student numbers, understanding student decision making, and how to position to your institution to take best advantage of the changes is conundrum that is being played out across both the further and higher education sector. The strategic decisions taken now about fees, course offerings and positioning will have a long lasting effect on an institution’s future.
Last week’s other announcement, the latest UCAS application figures was also significant for further education. While the overall 8.7% drop in applications to higher education was less than many predicted it masks a particular hit to mature and part-time applicants. What is clear from this year’s UCAS admissions figures is that the full effect of higher tuition fees will not be students turning away in droves from higher education, rather something more nuanced whose full effect may only be revealed in the coming years.
It is clearly those that require a more flexible learner experience that are beginning to reconsider their options and this presents a real opportunity for further education providers. Further education which is flexible and quick to adapt to changes is ideally positioned to take advantage of the changing market and equip themselves for a larger share of this new breed of learner.
What we will see is a fundamental shift in the motivations and expectations of school leavers and those looking to further their careers. While they have bought into the idea that further study is a necessity, how, where and for how much are the questions that will increasingly be asked. The cost-benefit calculations undertaken by each group of prospective learners; quality of education, flexibility of study, location, employability outcomes and of course cost and their implications will only become clear as students begin to vote with their feet.
For further education this is the time to seize the opportunity presented by changes in higher education. There is a significant opportunity to market your institution and courses to clearly demonstrate return on investment, positioning your institution as a practical, flexible, and affordable alternative with much greater employability outcomes.
As National Apprenticeship Week (6th-10th February) reminds us, practical hands on experience is an invaluable tool to help a young person into work. Further education’s ability to facilitate real-life experience will be key for the mature and part-time applicants who look more closely at the employment prospects post study.
In a practical sense, many further education providers are now looking closely at their marketing and customer relationship management (CRM), not just the installation and application of the technology, but a robust strategy to learn more about their customer, in this case a prospective learners’, needs and behaviors.
CRM, marketing and customer service are less developed concepts in the UK education sector; most further education providers will not have a cross-institutional service or a CRM strategy in place at present. In a way they are the lucky ones. They have a clean sheet to determine how they can attract and retain learners.
All providers are now taking understanding and tracking student decision making more seriously, simply making an offer or advertising a course will no longer be enough to guarantee enrolments. What is more effective? Hard copy brochures, online personalised, web-portals, targeted emails and text messages? Each institution must decide for itself based on a robust analysis of their activity to date.
Effective engagement and communication pre-enrolment will become just as important as the quality of learning and student experience on campus. Now is the time to equip your institution with an effective engagement and communications plan. This combined with a robust CRM and applicant system can save thousands of pounds in both staff time and money and allow you to see the result of your strategy.
Globally education is seeing the rise of new buzz words; personalisation, segmentation, targeting and nurturing. As learners are thinking about their time, their investment and how to make best use of their time education providers need to do the same.
Kenny Nicholl is a director at Hobsons, which supports education providers to improve their communication with prospective students from first enquiry through to enrolment