City & Guilds’ bid to beat the old school

While top universities reply on word-of-mouth, other institutions are having to invest in marketing to keep student numbers up.

As the new academic year gets under way and students mull over their options, the main provider of vocational qualifications in the UK, City & Guilds, is undertaking some soul-searching of its own. It is on the hunt for an advertising agency to help modernise its image (MW last week).

A year ago, the body, which offers 500 qualifications in 22 sectors, appointed consultancy Brandsmiths to advise on a root-and-branch rebranding exercise. It is choosing between four unnamed agencies to come up with a £1.5m advertising campaign that will help to project a more modern image to students and employers.

Despite celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Ricky Tomlinson gaining City & Guilds’ qualifications, a certain amount of ignorance exists over what the education body offers. City & Guilds head of marketing Joanna Causon says: “It’s about positioning ourselves so people understand what we do.” She believes the problem the body faces is that people think it is only relevant to those looking to go into plumbing or construction, when in fact the scope is much wider. A little known fact, she says, is that for 18 years IT training has been on offer.

One of the Government’s key education drives is to get 50 per cent of 18to 30-year-olds into higher education by 2010. While arguments rage annually when A-Level results are announced over whether the standard of education is falling, the fact is that more students are getting better grades every year. A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) spokeswoman says the target figure stands at 41 per cent.

Students embarking on further education non-degree courses such as those offered by City & Guilds are not counted. Tellingly, in a move that does not bode well for non-degree courses, the Government has yet to set a target for vocational qualifications, although the DfES spokeswoman says this does not mean it may not in the future.

A spokeswoman from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the examinations watchdog, says the number of students applying for higher education has remained stable, but the number of acceptances has risen. According to UCAS figures released on August 29, 318,026 students had been accepted by a university – up on last year’s 306,610.

How these trends will affect the uptake of further education non-degree courses is unclear. Causon says she does not think it has had a negative impact on the amount of people pursuing her organisation’s qualifications. In 2000/2001, 703,729 people gained a City & Guilds certificate, a marginal increase on the previous year’s figure of 684,741.

However the Institute of Directors’ policy director Ruth Lea is less optimistic about vocational education’s future. In a July policy document she attacked the Government’s line and called for the scrapping of the “ludicrous” 50 per cent target. Lea criticises the ” snobbish” attitude of the British, who view people who have not attended university as failures. She says there is a desperate need to encourage young people to pursue vocational qualifications.

In the report Lea says: “The number of good school-leavers who are going directly into employment and/or post-school vocational education and training is being squeezed by the massive expansion of students going into HE.”

Marie Owens, head of communications at Middlesex University, comments: “It seems true that when there’s high employment fewer people go into further and higher education. In the education sector, we joke that recession is good for us. This may be something that City & Guilds is facing.

“In the UK, we have a history of not wanting our children to become plumbers or electricians. Modern universities are somewhere in the middle. We are very proud of our skills heritage and strongly believe in fitting people out for work.”

Owens says that over the past few years a number of factors have disadvantaged the new universities, such as Middlesex, which were created when the binary system – polytechnics and universities – was abolished in 1992. One is that from this September, caps to the number of students that a university can recruit are to be abolished, a move that Owens claims will favour already popular traditional institutions.

Middlesex is fighting back and for the past three years, in an unusual move, it has advertised all year. It also targets international students and markets its courses outside the UK. Owens claims that Middlesex has more overseas students – 5,000 – than any other university.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, the representative body for the sector, says: “In a fast-changing and competitive world, universities are investing in their marketing activities. These are having an increasingly strategic role in university management and planning.”

But some do not have to bother with marketing. A Cambridge University spokeswoman says that attracting students is not something it has to work on. Likewise an Oxford spokeswoman says: “We don’t have a marketing department. We rely on Oxford’s reputation preceding itself.”

While City & Guilds and the newer universities battle to recruit students, it seems those considered to be at the pinnacle of education achievement will, for the foreseeable future, be able to sit back and watch the applications roll in.

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