From education to employment

The productive college: myth or fact?

So it is official. Productivity is important and is being measured in the FE sector. We know it because at the recent AELP’s conference Nick Boles detailed exactly how much government’s investment in FE generates by course level.

We could argue these figures, but the simplistic fact remains that government thinks some parts of the education offer is not as productive as others.

Of course we all knew that. It stands to reason that different parts of the mix will vary if we measure the ROI.

The real question is what can we do to improve productivity?

What is productivity?

This wasn’t clear to me from Nick Boles speech. He also didn’t say how the figures he quoted had been determined. But, in some senses, that actually that doesn’t matter.
Let’s make a few assumptions based on common sense.

Fixed costs are the same whether a class is full or half full. Within certain bounds there will be additional variable costs as class sizes grow but the biggest cost will be salaries and to a lesser extent space. So all other things being equal a class of 18 is going to produce a better ROI than a class of eight.

So a class of 18 is likely to be more productive is we measure the ROI.

That being so we can become more productive if we optimise class sizes at all times. So is marketing the answer to productivity? Is it just a matter of marketing finding more applicants to fill classrooms?

Applications are only half the answer

If only it were as easy as getting more applicants. Sadly the number of applicants is a result of the number of people interested. Based on recent research I’ve carried out, far too many people show interest but never become applicants. And where they do apply they often fail to convert as I explained in my last article, Ofsted to inspect marketing.

In many instances, where we recently mystery shopped providers, we found full time course applicants were invited to interview with less than seven day’s notice. In one case the invitation to attend interview arrived after the interview date. In the latter case the provider then failed to follow up the “missing” interviewee, but later sent out an acceptance letter. This being the case there were a number of no-shows at interviews which is not productive. In many cases these people then failed to respond to further letters.

Poor admin productivity

Other instances where productivity failed dismally during the application process included providers where the application form was completed online, sent to the provider and then retyped in to the in house system. There seems to be no comprehension that a form completed online could be uploaded in to the in-house MIS and/or other system in seconds and don’t need to be retyped.

Our quick calculation indicated that the providers making this error could each save more than one full time member of admin staff if they moved from retyping to undertaking the task via moving a csv file from one system to another. The cost of moving the file was negligible when compared with retyping. Doing what they had always done makes these providers much less productive than their competitors.

Bottlenecks cause poor productivity

One observation I note from productive businesses is that the answer lies in the culture of the organisation. They point out that where staff enjoy their work, where they understand why they do what they do and where they are allowed to use their initiative, then productivity rises. But they also point out that this can take years to achieve.

The positive message they provide is that no process is 100% effective. There are always ways to make processes more effective. So, they argue, if you can streamline a process here or save 15 minutes there then you become more productive. This isn’t rocket science … but neither was the idea of moving electronic data rather than retyping it.

So how can we improve productivity in FE?

What is the secret? Clearly optimising the numbers in classrooms will help considerably.

So will making better use of lecturers’ time. Why do we allow them to teach the same old rote material year after year when a video, made at low cost, can be viewed by the student whilst the lecturer uses their time more effectively to coach small groups of students and ensure that pass rates are high?

Improving admin efficiency will certainly help. Especially if we analyse each process we use and fine tune them for maximum efficiency. We should ask ourselves if we can outsource some simple admin tasks, or if there is a piece of equipment that will do the job better.

Improving productivity isn’t rocket science. But, as with many of the topics I write about, it needs a different mindset if we are to compete with smaller budgets.

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

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