Lee Parker is Director of Marketing & Communications at Milton Keynes College.

So how’s it been for you?

The world of college communications has been turned upside down in the current crisis. We’re all largely huddled at home, peering into our devices, trying to turn a face-to-face organisation into one existing purely in the ether. There are many heroic tales of colleges doing remarkable work to make sure we continue to look after our staff and our students, the businesses we have such important ties with and our wider communities. Everyone seems to agree that nothing will ever be the same. One day we will go back to work together again, but it is vitally important that the lessons learnt are not filed away in a dusty folder entitled, “The pandemic,” never to be reopened.

Lesson One. How saying, “I don’t know” can be a positive.

The first lesson we learnt at Milton Keynes College was to always remember our audience. Our institution comprises a general FE college spread over three campuses, a prison education programme across the country and the nascent South Central Institute of Technology. As communications people we’re all based on the main campus, and frankly, in the early days of lockdown it showed. Some of our colleagues working in those other areas gently pointed out to us that everything we were saying was campus-centric – it’s our environment, it’s the bit we see so it’s the part we most easily talk about. Once this had been mentioned we held up our hands, apologised to those who felt left out and changed the way we did things. The result has been entirely positive. By admitting where we went wrong, explaining that we didn’t have all the answers, that we were adapting minute-by-minute and did not entirely know where we were going to end up, confidence in our communications appears to have grown rather than diminished. People are comforted by the admission that we were finding our way through this as much as they were. Admitting you don’t know all the answers is a great way of showing you’re transparent, human and honest.

Lesson Two. We’re the good guys and we will have our reward.

Colleges are forces for good. We create opportunity, we care about our learners, we support our communities. Students and staff have been involved in a plethora of initiatives to do the good and neighbourly thing in recent weeks from 3D printing PPE, to distributing food parcels, to producing fitness videos. This is how we behave in normal times, so why would we change now? The point is that good works usually go largely unnoticed.

During this crisis, a spotlight has been shone on people’s behaviour. Organisations which have been perceived as heaving up the drawbridge have had a rough time in PR terms. Ask people what they think of Virgin or Sports Direct today and the response will be significantly more negative than before lockdown. People will remember them, and they’ll also remember companies like Timpson – a brilliant business of which Milton Keynes College has had really incredible experiences who look out for their staff and play an incredible role in their community. And it’s not just the big businesses. There are countless tales of local shops and restaurants supporting their vulnerable neighbours. They’re not just trying to create a good impression but to do what’s right. As consumers we can tell the difference and we will remember.

This represents a huge opportunity for colleges. We’ve shown that we can be incredibly agile – an unexpected benefit of living through a decade of shrinking budgets perhaps. At Milton Keynes College we went from traditional classroom delivery to a full online timetable over a weekend. On Friday students were attending their classes in person and on Monday they were signing in to Microsoft Teams. I don’t think anyone watching current developments in education would suggest that many schools or universities could match the rapidity of FE’s response – and we need to remember that in our future communications.

Colleges are so often perceived as a second choice but our ability to simultaneously care for our communities while adapting to such dramatic changes in our working conditions are things to shout about. They will not only help with the recruitment of students but also of top quality staff – who wouldn’t want to work for an organisation that’s proved it looks after people?

Lesson Three. We’re in the business of learning from business.

Since the introduction of the current apprenticeship system, we’ve had to develop much better links with business than we ever had before. Organising apprenticeships, industry placements, work experience – all of these have required us to far better understand how industry works. Some of the good practices of the best companies have rubbed off.

At Milton Keynes College we’ve benefitted hugely from working with Microsoft for example. They introduced us to the joys of Teams a little while ago and that foreknowledge has been invaluable. We’ve just held our first apprenticeship recruitment process entirely online. Candidates visited our virtual recruitment centre and were taken from initial interest through to being whittled down to the two available spaces and appointed. They’re both excited and ready to start with their new employers and the whole process took just ten days. It proved we’re still open to providing employment opportunities in spite of the crisis. This is the kind of service colleges can offer which they can’t be found elsewhere.

Lesson Four. The old normal was not sustainable

Ask the average 17 or 18 year old about what matters to them outside their own lives and sustainability is a life-defining issue for them. Even if there is no vaccine for COVID-19 for a decade, the green agenda will have far greater longevity. Young people appreciate that this enforced period of staying in one place has desirable side-effects for the environment. Because of this more than anything the move online will never be entirely reversed. There will be no going back to how things used to be.

Digital literacy is of course crucial as is the access to technology. There are challenges around ensuring no one gets left behind and we must make sure everyone has access to the technology they need to fulfil their potential. The brave new post-coronavirus world will bring forth opportunities like this to actually be more inclusive than before. Students struggling to get into college because of the vagaries of public transport or other personal physical or mental obstacles may find it much easier to come in for two days a week for their practical sessions while doing the rest of their studies online. It could be a great leveller.

Communications will be central to making the new world function as it should. In spite of the difficulties we all face we must remain positive and mustn’t allow a generation of students to feel like they were the ones who missed out. We must leave no one behind. The onus is on us, the college communicators to continue to speak the language of opportunity around our deeply rooted links with employers.

Coronavirus has been a crash course for the future. Keeping talking will be the key to emerging from it to provide a better service for students than ever we did before.

Lee Parker is Director of Marketing & Communications at Milton Keynes College.

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