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My recent article on the £7.99 FE Financial Viability Strategy was not only the most shared article that week, it also had my phone ringing.

Why? Two reasons:

One, a lot of people agreed with me. They tended to be mainly middle managers.

Secondly, CEOs thought it was almost impossible to achieve.

Imagine what the typical CEO says, the chances are your response is going to be similar. Let’s call this CEO Chris. Chris says that whilst what I said was of theoretical interest, and they needed solutions that would ensure financial stability, my ideas lacked practicality.

Of course they would say that, wouldn’t they. If they thought it practical they would already be doing it.

But thinking something is not practical, and it being impractical or even impossible, is not the same.

Why is Being Commercial So Hard?

What CEOs tend to think is that what I proposed is a huge project and will take years.

I agree. Change of this sort isn’t going to be easy or be achieved overnight. But that’s no reason not to undertake it. It’s not as if FE isn’t used to change. It’s overloaded with change imposed by funders, Inspectors and others.

I suspect that what most CEOs really mean is that they hate the external imposition of change, things like funding changes, AND that the idea of going commercial is daunting. They also don’t know where to start.

That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time mapping out the steps a typical college needs to take. It’s a bit like eating an elephant. You have to do it bite by bite. You don’t have to finish it in one sitting. And you could invite others to help you eat the elephant.

So what is the first mouthful we need to take? It starts with reviewing your charitable purposes. The charities Act 2011 defines charitable purpose as one of 13 broad areas that are of public benefit. Interestingly, when it comes to education the Act does not limit charities to a classroom environment.

Today, education includes:

  • formal education
  • community education
  • physical education and development of young people
  • training (including vocational training) and life-long learning
  • research and adding to collective knowledge and understanding of specific areas of study and expertise
  • the development of individual capabilities, competences, skills and understanding.

In most cases FE providers will not need to change their charitable status. It’s possible to be a charity and be commercial in outlook and action, provided the charitable objectives are observed. And most FE providers will work with a purpose that is consistent with the changes they may decide to make.

The next step is to determine your long-term objectives, e.g. financial viability, sustainability and maybe even being largely, or totally, Ofsted free. These are consistent with most providers charitable status and deciding on these sounds a simple job because we all want something like this.

But this step needs a lot of consideration as it is the foundation on which the future of the provider stands. And each provider needs to decide just how commercial they want to be. Getting Clarity of Purpose at this stage is essential. If you can’t be absolutely clear about this then you are doomed to failure. Getting staff buy-in is also going to be very tricky.

Tied into this is identifying your Why (I wrote about Implementing Why in FE, in 2014). Staff, especially younger members of staff, really need to have a sense of purpose, so identifying Why and these other elements is vital if you are to get the best possible from everyone.

Now comes the fun bit.

You need to draw up a plan and implement it. But before you implement it you need to understand the barriers that will prevent success. If you don’t want them to surprise you then you need to confront them at the outset.

The list of barriers is long. And it will need regular reviews, as it will change over the duration of the becoming commercial journey.

My research shows that there is a commonality of barriers across providers, with just a handful being specific to any provider.

What is More Commercial Going to Look and Feel Like?

Commercial is another world.

Commercial companies behave in a different way. They think about the impact of their actions on the consumer and rarely just do something because an external body tells them to. They need to obey the law of course, and being commercial isn’t easy, but they don’t have funding bodies dictating their income. And although they may need to abide by certain rules drawn up by external stakeholders they have more freedom to change their direction.

For example, a retailer can decide to close its bricks and mortar premises and only sell online. Or an online organisation can decide to open physical premises. Think how Amazon is experimenting with physical stores with cashless checkouts etc. They can decide to move in that direction without too much government interference. Now think about T levels. Government is setting the pace on this. Providers have little choice but to accept the situation although they seem to have had some impact on delivery dates.

OK, I accept there needs to be a national overview of things like T levels. But you don’t need to be part of this if you don’t want to be. As a commercial company you decide what you offer and when. I recall providers being told that they had to jump through certain hoops to join things like Train to Gain and CoVEs, only to see the goal posts keep moving and promises broken.

Being commercial means you decide what courses you offer and where you run courses and whether you adhere to traditional term dates that are tied to exam dates.

Let me give you some examples from my own commercial activities. Not many people know about this side of my life but one of my hobbies is photography. For many years I moonlighted as a journalist for a number of “glossy” magazines that commissioned me to write a few thousand words and supply images on various topics and places of interest. I suppose selling images makes me a semi pro photographer and I now also sell images on commercial websites.

To be able to sell an image of a wild animal takes a few skills akin to those the commercial business person needs to perfect. First you have to find your wild animal! You could compare this with providers finding new curriculum areas to add to their offer.

Well, the leopard in the above image didn’t just appear in front of me with a sign on it saying please photograph me. To find the leopard I had to research where leopards hung out, what time of day they visited the waterholes, where they hunted and what I might do to attract them to me.

Running around the veldt certainly doesn’t work. It just scares the leopards away.

To get a shot like the one above I had to be patient. Just knowing they would come to a waterhole doesn’t mean you can book an appointment to meet them. They frequent a number of waterholes and keep on the move.

You also have to go out on a limb a bit. You have to take a few calculated risks. But the secret of getting great leopard shots is to do so without being eaten.

It’s the same with deer. The one in the video is a Sika deer. It is totally wild. But by being patient I was able to get these great close up shots.

Finding wild animals to photograph is certainly akin to running an FE business. Finding new courses to add to the curriculum isn’t going to be easy. But with patience you can find them if you are determined enough. The chances are that they are there but you are having problems seeing them.

For example I love photographing foxes. There are a lot of foxes where I live. Burt most people never see them even though the foxes are walking around in broad daylight.

Look at the next video and see if you can see the fox. It’s one I spotted when I took my daily walk a few days ago.

It’s about as easy to see as some new course opportunities.

How Do Leopard, Deer and Fox Affect FE?

Good question.

They represent the problems that occur when you want to become more commercial with your curriculum (or any other aspect of the business).

To expand your curriculum to better match the needs of your audience you need to do research, learn about your audience and have patience. You have to see what is in front of you, in broad daylight and not be eaten by the competition.

In previous articles I talked about things like drone and iPhone courses that have literally taken off. These courses aren’t isolated examples and the market for them is still growing. Provided you got in early. For example Emil, who runs the iPhone photography courses, is growing his market. He now has 25,661 people in his course buyer’s private Facebook group, and many have bought more than one highly profitable course. Can you name one highly profitable course in your college, especially one that you’ve sold to more than 25,000 people?

But trying to sell iPhone photography courses is probably not the answer, that market is now dominated by a non FE provider. So what’s the alternative?

Well, photography is still popular and I’m sure I could be better at it if one of the world’s finest photographers were to teach me. A course taught by someone like Annie Leibovitz would suit me.

As it happens there is a course taught by Annie. So forget that idea!

But hey, it’s like foxes. There are a lot of opportunities about, you just have to spot them.

And of course your competitors are doing this all the time. They are spotting opportunities that mainstream FE is not seeing. Read tomorrow's article "Your competitors aren’t other ESFA funded providers" to find out what you need to know about your competitors.

Alternatively, contact me to discuss how to become more commercial.

Stefan Drew, FHE Marketing Consultant

Copyright © 2018 FE News

About Stefan DrewStefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for over a decade has consulted with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe, Africa and the US. Connect with Stefan on LinkedIn  

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