From education to employment

Going commercial in FE

Further education is undergoing radical change brought about by cuts in central government funding that urges colleges to be more commercial in their approach. This has resulted in a demand for senior management skilled at developing and overseeing strategies that not only bring income to the college but also student numbers and excellence in learning outcomes. Many educators will be the first to admit that commercial enterprise is out of their comfort zone with business strategy coming way down on their list of competences.

Indeed even for a well seasoned business executive it’s a tough call balancing all three demands and even more so when the incumbent management might never have been hired for the purpose of performing such roles.

Generating income to keep a college afloat and off the proverbial breadline wasn’t something that featured on the job description of a Principal 20 years ago. Supporting that activity from department heads, teachers and lecturers was also not required until now. So it’s no wonder that staff are raising concern at the very thought; fear of the unknown, unskilled, and the extracurricular which they don’t have time for. Unlike a business, colleges can’t pick and choose their customers, their price, or their niche; many are required to offer a curriculum for all levels and types, ‘going commercial’ for an FE college demands a different kind of product mix.

So what are the business options?

Collaborations including mergers, which can either be stronger colleges taking over weaker colleges, or strong-to-strong mergers, are becoming common for this purpose. In the latter case, an FE institution buys into or partners with another organisation to add commercial value to their ventures.
Yet boosting income under a reduced cost base is only one of the challenges within the FE collaborations. The new structure will also need to maintain, if not improve, the educational experience and outcomes for their students. Getting results in this respect will always be the key differentiator.

Attracting students is an entirely new ball game in itself. FE institutions have come up with several tactics in this regard including:

• Widening their programme offering with priority given to renewable energy, manufacturing and engineering;

• Making courses more relevant to employers, thus, encouraging local business support and forging links with the industry; and

• Engaging with industry partners in joint ventures where employers train their own staff within college facilities, thus, shaping the education and training received by their future employers (i.e., industry-academy partnership).

LeSoCo is an example of adding commercial value through The Skills People; a commercial venture that is part of LeSoCo which sees employer engagement bringing together vocational courses central to their service delivery.

Also, FE colleges should start offering business solutions across a wider range of business specialisations like R&D and product design.

Undeniably, FE institutions can influence job creation in their local communities by emphasising real-world employment outcomes for their graduates without distracting from the overall education ideals. Bournemouth College is a good example – it has an Employability Advisory Board consisting of local businessmen who work closely with the college and its students in facilitating social enterprise and creating employment opportunities.

What skills are required to ‘go commercial’?

Attracting the right faculty and the right management team are the more challenging tasks ahead. Keep in mind that ‘going commercial’ for an FE college requires commercial skills, strategies and technologies adopted by senior management staff considering the complexities of income generation, student attraction, and faculty retention, among others.

FE institutions have to devise strategies to entice, and retain, the best and most appropriate talent within their management teams. With a tourniquet around the purse tightly constricting funds, the pressure to recruit using the most productive and cost effective methods goes without saying.

Financial and management expertise is critical in a new commercial mindset. Current incumbents may not necessarily have these skills and increasingly FE is looking outside of its sector to bring in talent from private industry. Examples of these are; Manchester College with CEO John Thornhill, who previously held positions within the BT Group, including Engage IT, Business Direct Ltd and; and Birmingham Metropolitan College with their soon-to-start Principal and CEO, Andrew Cleaves, who previously held a senior executive position within National Express. Mergers, federations and other types of collaborations and alliances require specialists to maximise on opportunities in student population, income, and education quality.
Mergers, federations and other types of collaborations and alliances require specialists to maximise on opportunities in student population, income, and education quality.

Bringing in new managers with the expertise in delivering the most productive courses may not be feasible despite more central funding being given to courses that emphasise renewable energy, manufacturing and engineering. Furthermore, trying to attract students in these disciplines is equally as difficult and shouldn’t be conceived as the be-all-and end-all to an FE institution’s success. Thinking locally and regionally about the student catchment and how a college might dovetail with other education establishments might be as crucial as thinking about how much funding certain courses attract. The marketing landscape will be the driver for FE commercial success because getting this right will help deliver results.

FE colleges must then select and adopt the right strategies and seek to appoint the right senior management (e.g., principals, vice-principals, directors, and line managers) who can help them achieve their goals – these are the basics of commercial enterprise that might stand an FE college in good stead.

Chris Wimshurst is education director at Morgan Hunt, the recruitment agency

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