From education to employment

The entrepreneurial FE provider

More and more colleges are teaching entrepreneurship and many embrace the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy concept.

This is excellent. We are a nation that have thrived on invention, innovation and enterprise. Napoleon said “L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers”, and he wasn’t being disparaging. Napoleon recognised our strength had come from commerce and our entrepreneurial spirit.

This being so; why are colleges not more enterprising? Of course a few are, but in my view not the majority.

You see entrepreneurs don’t really fit the FE model which, perhaps understandably, works within a straightjacket of rules and regulations. I personally believe that, if it were more entrepreneurial, FE could expand its role into the training and other areas far beyond the amount it penetrates them now.


But to grow this new type of FE business means disruption. If you aren’t rocking any boats there is a good chance you will not be noticed by your prospective customers and you probably aren’t being entrepreneurial enough.

Many years ago I recalled that Sir Richard Branson had rocked a few boats in the record and airline businesses when he started out. He was definitely a disruptive influence. With this model in mind I obtained ESF funding to set up and run a rural training scheme. It certainly disrupted my colleagues who kept reminding me that I worked in a city centre college. It upset them even more when I refused to produce a prospectus; I was working on an idea that we would be demand led, so a prospectus was of no use whatsoever when the demand was largely unknown and unpredictable.

I was also disruptive when I refused to use curriculum staff when they weren’t free until September. I outsourced the training through industry based practitioners that could deliver within a few days.

The marketplace was also disrupted. Because we outsourced we could promise to run courses, often on totally obscure topics, within no more than six weeks of request. We soon had a big following. In fact we also had a letter from Downing St in recognition of the direction we had gone. They seemed to think that all colleges should follow our model.

Our targets were soon shattered and we were able to increase the prices on our courses. It was a classic supply and demand situation and we didn’t have to take much notice of the lower prices offered by our competitors.


Being an entrepreneurial provider is also about taking action. To be effective you have to take action, take risks and be prepared to fail. You must also recognise what it is to fail. It is an opportunity to learn what does and doesn’t work.

Providers that think about the actions rather than take them are not entrepreneurial.


But just taking action is probably doomed to failure unless you have absolute clarity about what you are trying to achieve and how you will do it. You also have to stand for something, be prepared to expose your core beliefs, and be prepared to put your head above the ramparts.


That means you need to really focus on communications. Your staff need to understand and share your core beliefs and be given the authority to act on them and you need to communicate with your customers.


Finally you have to build upon success. That means running the new “business” on commercial lines. Some of the failures I’ve seen have been caused by the 50% top slice where the business has already paid for external office space, venues, tutors, etc. It is easy to prove the uneconomic nature of any business if you effectively double charge.

Too many times I’ve also seen the entrepreneurial FE business destroyed when the entrepreneur is head hunted to set up the same thing elsewhere. We need to have a succession plan to replace key staff; and it isn’t always easy to replace a true entrepreneur.

And if you are the provider that has head hunted the right person you have to remove the normal FE shackles and let them fly.

Marketing consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and now works with providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US. Visit:


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