Ian Sackree is the COO at Protocol

My dear stepfather was a jobbing builder who understood the need to differentiate levels of accuracy and performance. Where a ‘rough job’ ensued he would remind me this was all he required on that particular element as ‘‘we were not making watches!’ In essence, he was very commercially focussed!

So much has been written over the last decade about the need for colleges to be (or become) successful commercial entities. This dominates current thinking around the Area Based Review Programme and will undoubtedly emerge as the key driver for future organisational change. But let’s stop and think for a moment! Ten years ago most colleges were publishing Annual Accounts with huge Operating Surpluses (I mean £ Millions), further fuelled by FRS17 Pension Gains (yes, I said Gains!). On reflection, were we better then at running businesses then than we are now, with many (not all) colleges now posting chunky Operational Losses (enlarged by FRS17 Losses!).

The answer is surely not!’ Now we have new structures, greater business focus from roles such as CEO’s and COO’s; bigger Finance functions, better systems and more MIS than you can shake the proverbial stick at. Surely, we can run our multi-million pound colleges better today than a decade ago?

The subject of commerciality is quite complex. My Little Oxford Dictionary defines a college as ‘a place providing Higher Education or specialised training.’ OK – not a bad definition, if not quite in correct progressive sequence. But, fundamentally – no mention of business, commerce and money! Commercial is defined as ‘making or intending to make profit’ and Business is defined as ‘a commercial activity or a commercial organisation’. Surely, neither definition talks to a college; so we are fundamentally challenged on this. However, worry no more, as the half way house of ‘businesslike’ saves the day, defined as ‘efficient and practical.’

So; the best colleges will surely operate places providing Higher Education and training in a businesslike manner going forward? I think I need to support this argument some more, and whilst I could use any business as a comparator I will lean towards a commercial, profitable manufacturing organisation for help.

In my view, colleges are not businesses because (and this is fundamental) they do not control (in material volumes of activity) either pricing or supply and demand. Pricing of its core services is ‘reverse engineered’ as it is set as a largely non-variable unit of funding, and supply (which needs to be matched to demand – or vice versa (it doesn’t matter)) is capped by the real customer, being the funding bodies. Here is the other dilemma; the customer (the student) may not actually be the paying customer, but is actually the consumer! Where pricing can be tinkered with, such as small menus of commercial courses or HE tuition fees then this is normally priced with reference to local competition and thus is not product led, but rather competitor led. Furthermore, pricing (being funding) is dictated top-down and not calculated ‘bottom up’ so the task becomes one of how to get costs to fit rather than to find a price point that truly represents the costs, that will stick in the marketplace!

So, if a successful commercial business controls some of the key things that colleges do not, including pricing and production volumes (FE is designed to precisely spend the funding, with no allowance for over production through stock holdings) and the ability to stimulate demand that exceeds expectations what comparable tools are there in the FE toolbox that can help colleges run in a ‘businesslike’ manner?

  • Effective CRM is key. Getting the right messages across to core customers (16-18) and more selective and potentially short-term customers (employers) through effective sales and marketing resulting in recruitment and enrolment is so important. In spite of funding cuts too many colleges are still missing core 16-18 and Apprentice targets suggesting that CRM, competitive and collaborative recruitment strategies and the Learner Journey is not quite right. Is this an area that your college can improve?
  • Quality is really important to reputation and to some stakeholders (but not all). Businesses never compromise on quality and implement systems that guarantee consistency and habitual performance. When ‘travel to learn’ patterns, costs and constraints are factored some customers may not worry too much whether the college is a Grade 2 or 1 (or even 3), but Quality needs to feature heavily in all aspects of service provision, where arguably the price and standard of cafe food, the cleanliness of the toilets or the availability of free gym space may be more important to a 17 yr student than the method of lesson confirmation selected by the lecturer. Controversial? Probably, but true. Make sure that your college quality regime (how many colleges operate ISO (or similar regimes) outside of the classroom?) extends to cover the whole Learner Journey and is representative of the whole learner experience.
  • MIS is fundamental as it underscores both academic performance and financial achievement – but the adage of ‘intelligence over data’ must rule. Measure what is important, and what you can influence. We all know how to calculate a Success Rate, but do we understand our customer wastage pre 42 days for example or can we quantify how satisfied students are with their learner experience? Successful businesses know an awful lot about their customers, do you?
  • Distribution and Timing of Service Delivery are within a college’s control. Colleges decide where they operate, and when. The Area Based Reviews are intended to sweep up some of these issues, particularly those half-empty smaller college satellite sites. That said, the best businesses seek to sweat their assets – there is a huge, and currently unmeasured cost of capital in FE and in all honesty too few college sites would cover this cost between the common normal opening hours of 0830-1800hrs Monday to Friday with reduced attendance on Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Estate utilisation, rationalisation and efficiency, creative timetabling, alternative uses and community engagement all often have scope for improvement! Commercial businesses do not delay or defer decision making where under-utilisation occurs and capital assets are not working effectively for the business. They also understand where their ‘product loss leaders are, and why’. Do you
  • Product Development is a key aspect of a successful business. New offerings take time to develop and should be properly tested before final release, save embarrassment or poor performance in the field! Research and Development and Marketing costs are no longer the first to be cut in tight financial times. Indeed, arguably they should be protected at any cost. Do you have sufficient new courses and programmes under development (at all levels), are these being designed by your best people and properly tested before release? If not, why not, as we know that courses only have a certain life-cycle, relevance and saleability!
  • Meaningful KPI’s and Reliable Financial Information will always be key. Know your numbers and ensure that sufficient attention to detail is given to managing working capital. ‘Cash is King, Turnover is Vanity and Surplus is Sanity!’ Enough said!
  • Roles, Responsibilities and Accountabilities throws up an interesting dilemma. Commercial businesses have owners and / or shareholders, not just stakeholders. Business leaders have a financial imperative (and often a stake) in improving financial performance; college leaders do not and indeed, along with Governors are merely custodians of the organisation they oversee. Yes they are well-paid, and yes without doubt they are professional and truly do care. But, they can choose to move on with easy portability, or be moved on! Furthermore, there is a ‘cap’ on financial performance. On average, colleges are chasing 1% Operating Surplus currently, and will be delighted with a breakeven. In the halcyon days of old 3%-5% was the norm; anymore and it really did need some justification with the various stakeholders (including those staff seeking a better pay uplift) and learner groups who demand that money be spent in-year to support their respective ‘one shot’ education deal. Neither 1% or 3% cuts it I am afraid in a commercial boardroom – confirming my assertion that colleges are not businesses – but good governance must dictate (in the public interest) that they are always run in a businesslike manner!
  • Lastly, People! In business people generate profit. We measure people in multiples of revenue and margin. In a college, people facilitate great learning to take place; they change the lives of students for the better, open doors, raise aspiration, inspire and prepare people for an onward journey that should yield a ROI to UK PLC over many years. We need to make sure that we get this balance right. Learning is a people thing and whilst we need to measure some inputs – let’s choose them carefully to make sure that we keep sight of the outputs. Drive your teachers like fee-earners and you run the risk of some unintended behavioural consequences. A clear vision, mission, and task, supported by proper investment in training and development and above all trust (because you appointed them) in them to deliver will generally suffice! 
  • Hi-quality core educational output is entirely dependent on the quality of leadership above it, and the quality of the lecturers and support staff delivering it. Protocol’s core business is the search and selection of the very best leaders, combined with the implementation of staffing models, permanent, flexible and a mix of the two at an affordable price. This is your single biggest area where you can make some financial gains if you make the right staffing choices. Give me a call to discuss?

So, by way of summary I disagree that a college can either be defined as wholly commercial or fully meet the criteria of being a business, and I believe I have presented a fair argument to support this view. I also highlight that the underlying level of pricing and volume cuts experienced by FE in the last 5 years would undoubtedly challenge the very best commercial organisations. Notwithstanding, we are where we are and colleges remain ‘oil tankers’ in terms of resource consumption on such a national scale (£5 Billion) that there are non-negotiable tax-payer demands that they be run them in a businesslike manner. Let’s not however forget what the product is – it’s the passage of knowledge through learning, and each learner’s experience may differ from the next. After all, we are not ‘making watches!’

Ian Sackree is the COO at Protocol and has significant experience of delivering efficiencies in colleges and in leading Protocol’s wide range of cost-effective recruitment services, including its new and innovative Permanent Recruitment, Search and Selection Service tailored for academic and management posts.

You may also be interested in these articles:

Sponsored Video

Register, Login or Login with your Social Media account:


Advertisers

Upcoming FE Events

Advertiser Skyscrapers

Newsroom Activity

Levelling Up Learning through Technology – A Ufi...

Levelling Up Learning through Technology – A Ufi VocTech Trust’s Whitepaper - EdTech Update April 28, 2021How can digital solutions improve outcomes...

FE News: The Future of Education News Channel had a status update on Twitter yesterday

RT @FENews: Flexi-jobs, ATAS and Apprenticeships: OverviewFollowing recent consultations by the Department for Education, a new flexi-jobs.…
View Original Tweet

Latest Education News

Further Education News

The FE News Channel gives you the latest education news and updates on emerging education strategies and the #FutureofEducation and the #FutureofWork.

Providing trustworthy and positive Further Education news and views since 2003, we are a digital news channel with a mixture of written word articles, podcasts and videos. Our specialisation is providing you with a mixture of the latest education news, our stance is always positive, sector building and sharing different perspectives and views from thought leaders, to provide you with a think tank of new ideas and solutions to bring the education sector together and come up with new innovative solutions and ideas.

FE News publish exclusive peer to peer thought leadership articles from our feature writers, as well as user generated content across our network of over 3000 Newsrooms, offering multiple sources of the latest education news across the Education and Employability sectors.

FE News also broadcast live events, podcasts with leading experts and thought leaders, webinars, video interviews and Further Education news bulletins so you receive the latest developments in Skills News and across the Apprenticeship, Further Education and Employability sectors.

Every week FE News has over 200 articles and new pieces of content per week. We are a news channel providing the latest Further Education News, giving insight from multiple sources on the latest education policy developments, latest strategies, through to our thought leaders who provide blue sky thinking strategy, best practice and innovation to help look into the future developments for education and the future of work.

In Jan 2021, FE News had over 173,000 unique visitors according to Google Analytics and over 200 new pieces of news content every week, from thought leadership articles, to the latest education news via written word, podcasts, video to press releases from across the sector, putting us in the top 2,000 websites in the UK.

We thought it would be helpful to explain how we tier our latest education news content and how you can get involved and understand how you can read the latest daily Further Education news and how we structure our FE Week of content:

Main Features

Our main features are exclusive and are thought leadership articles and blue sky thinking with experts writing peer to peer news articles about the future of education and the future of work. The focus is solution led thought leadership, sharing best practice, innovation and emerging strategy. These are often articles about the future of education and the future of work, they often then create future education news articles. We limit our main features to a maximum of 20 per week, as they are often about new concepts and new thought processes. Our main features are also exclusive articles responding to the latest education news, maybe an insight from an expert into a policy announcement or response to an education think tank report or a white paper.

FE Voices

FE Voices was originally set up as a section on FE News to give a voice back to the sector. As we now have over 3,000 newsrooms and contributors, FE Voices are usually thought leadership articles, they don’t necessarily have to be exclusive, but usually are, they are slightly shorter than Main Features. FE Voices can include more mixed media with the Further Education News articles, such as embedded podcasts and videos. Our sector response articles asking for different comments and opinions to education policy announcements or responding to a report of white paper are usually held in the FE Voices section. If we have a live podcast in an evening or a radio show such as SkillsWorldLive radio show, the next morning we place the FE podcast recording in the FE Voices section.

Sector News

In sector news we have a blend of content from Press Releases, education resources, reports, education research, white papers from a range of contributors. We have a lot of positive education news articles from colleges, awarding organisations and Apprenticeship Training Providers, press releases from DfE to Think Tanks giving the overview of a report, through to helpful resources to help you with delivering education strategies to your learners and students.

Podcasts

We have a range of education podcasts on FE News, from hour long full production FE podcasts such as SkillsWorldLive in conjunction with the Federation of Awarding Bodies, to weekly podcasts from experts and thought leaders, providing advice and guidance to leaders. FE News also record podcasts at conferences and events, giving you one on one podcasts with education and skills experts on the latest strategies and developments.

We have over 150 education podcasts on FE News, ranging from EdTech podcasts with experts discussing Education 4.0 and how technology is complimenting and transforming education, to podcasts with experts discussing education research, the future of work, how to develop skills systems for jobs of the future to interviews with the Apprenticeship and Skills Minister.

We record our own exclusive FE News podcasts, work in conjunction with sector partners such as FAB to create weekly podcasts and daily education podcasts, through to working with sector leaders creating exclusive education news podcasts.

Education Video Interviews

FE News have over 700 FE Video interviews and have been recording education video interviews with experts for over 12 years. These are usually vox pop video interviews with experts across education and work, discussing blue sky thinking ideas and views about the future of education and work.

Events

FE News has a free events calendar to check out the latest conferences, webinars and events to keep up to date with the latest education news and strategies.

FE Newsrooms

The FE Newsroom is home to your content if you are a FE News contributor. It also help the audience develop relationship with either you as an individual or your organisation as they can click through and ‘box set’ consume all of your previous thought leadership articles, latest education news press releases, videos and education podcasts.

Do you want to contribute, share your ideas or vision or share a press release?

If you want to write a thought leadership article, share your ideas and vision for the future of education or the future of work, write a press release sharing the latest education news or contribute to a podcast, first of all you need to set up a FE Newsroom login (which is free): once the team have approved your newsroom (all content, newsrooms are all approved by a member of the FE News team- no robots are used in this process!), you can then start adding content (again all articles, videos and podcasts are all approved by the FE News editorial team before they go live on FE News). As all newsrooms and content are approved by the FE News team, there will be a slight delay on the team being able to review and approve content.

 RSS IconRSS Feed Selection Page