Nigel Rayner, head of Capita's further and higher education business, examines the results of a recent survey of FE staff.

It was interesting to note that nine out of 10 (91%) FE staff surveyed recently by Capita reported that student numbers in their institutions had remained static or increased since last year.

Despite these seemingly healthy numbers, over a third (36%) of respondents stated that attracting new students remained the greatest challenge they face.

The results suggest uncertainty exists across the sector. But what steps can colleges take to improve their chances of attracting the best students?

The art of student recruitment

The further education landscape is evolving at such a rapid pace that successful student recruitment is becoming something of an art. When quizzed about effective methods of attracting students in the survey, 36% of staff believed word of mouth and face to face contact were most important, 27% opted for mobile technologies and at 21%, traditional marketing was the third most popular response.

In a competitive marketplace, the results hint that institutions need to strike the right balance in connecting with potential students. In the past, the first contact a would-be learner has with their future place of study might be as they walk through the doors or pick up the phone to request a glossy prospectus. More often than not, this is no longer the case.

Changing expectations

Technological advances are driving a fundamental shift in how colleges market their offering. According to the International Data Corporation, there has been a 78.4 per cent year-on-year increase in sales of tablets, which sold a staggering 128 million units in 2012. The number of devices sold this year is expected to increase by almost 50 per cent to over 190 million units, outselling desktop computers for the first time.

With the explosion in take-up of mobile devices, it has become mission critical for colleges to harness the potential of online technology and social media for attracting students through their doors. What they may not realise is that some of the tools they need to do this could already be within their management information systems (MIS).

Now more than ever, students expect FE institutions to have a strong online presence. They want to be able to download a prospectus from their Facebook page, for example, communicate online with students already enrolled to ask about their learning experience or 'like' a college they've had positive contact with. This is increasingly seen as an extension to traditional word-of-mouth marketing practice.

It is also evident from the 59% of survey respondents who indicated that their institutions are planning to implement mobile apps that many institutions are exploring how they can use mobile technology to engage more effectively with prospective and existing students. These tools enable enquiring students to read the prospectus, find directions to the campus and get answers to any questions they have about courses directly from admissions staff via a Smartphone or tablet. This can also be a great way to drive traffic to the college website.

When used well, mobile technology helps ensure students are placed at the centre of their learning journey. It allows them to access important information such as their attendance records or grades via a mobile phone and even stay in touch with their tutors when they're not in college. And what's more it does this in a format that is convenient, accepted and an integral part of their daily lives. In a world where information is easily accessible 24/7, an integrated mobile strategy can put one college ahead of another in the student experience stakes.

Streamlined applications

It is no surprise that colleges offering a comprehensive online applications process report increased recruitment success, particularly if applicants can also pay online.

Prospective students' details can be captured at the moment of their initial enquiry, they apply online and all documentation is uploaded via a web portal quickly and easily. Admissions staff can then check that everything is there and if additional documentation is required, they can communicate electronically with applicants and request that they upload it. Applications are routed for the attention of the admissions tutor, who can then make an offer directly to the applicant, which can be accepted promptly.

As the survey results suggest, challenges remain in the FE marketplace. But institutions that focus on meeting the changing expectations of students will be best placed to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Nigel Rayner is head of Capita's further and higher education business


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