PUBLIC SECTOR: Learn to earn - PR has an important role to play in the promotion of life-long learning, writes Chris Mahony

Among New Labour's limitless supply of slogans, 'opportunity for all' is one of the most common.

With the leadership's apparent dislike of indolence and the attraction of driving down the welfare bill, ministers are keen that everyone should have access to the educational opportunities that could make them more productive members of society.

Universities have been funded to provide extra places in an attempt to meet the Government's target - 50 per cent of people aged 18 to 30 with experience of higher education by 2010. On top of this, ministers also want to see more students from disadvantaged backgrounds, a goal encompassed by the term 'widening participation'.

So how can PR help to attract people into further and higher education?

The Learning and Skills Council, which came into being last April to oversee education and training outside higher education, also has a series of ambitious targets. These include increasing the percentage of 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training from 75 per cent to 80 per cent by 2004.

Given that the council is not a direct provider, it will rely on communications to achieve those targets.

In one of his first public comments as council chairman, Bryan Sanderson said: 'There has to be a change in the mindset of employers, adults and young people ... We live in a country that views learning as something we do at school or college rather than throughout our lives. We believe that our targets are realistic and achievable but it will take hard work and dedication by everyone to persuade young people and adults that it pays to learn.'

The council's director of communications Robin Newton-Syms told PRWeek: 'The Government has given the agency a statutory duty to promote learning and therefore there is a huge communications aspect. The key thing for us is how we reach new learners or people put off by the system.'

Newton-Syms is on the council board, reflecting the importance attached to the role.

As well as direct promotions by the council, such as the Bite Size campaign (see box), the council will use funds to roll out good practice by individual institutions.

Meanwhile, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has commissioned university marketing experts Heist to benchmark marketing in the sector.

Heist chief executive David Roberts says the three-year exercise would look at universities in Britain and abroad. It reflects

vice-chancellors' desire for a broader way of evaluating and reviewing their marketing departments, he says.

'It is not simply a matter of selling and promotion but looking at the market fundamentally, looking at trends and adapting what universities have to offer students, rather than developing courses and looking for people to fill them,' Roberts adds. 'We are still in the foothills of changing the culture - looking at what students want, what employers want and what society needs.'

Initial discussions have identified the need to identify relevant courses launched at the right time. He says universities, particularly former polytechnics, could draw on the labour market knowledge of former students now in senior positions.

Roberts says few universities communicate effectively with their existing students at a corporate level, losing the opportunity to create future informed ambassadors for their institutions.

Help is clearly needed at some institutions. The HEFCE recently confirmed that many of the universities that converted from polytechnic status nearly a decade ago are still struggling to reach their student body targets.

One of the few to exceed its target, Leeds Metropolitan University sings from Roberts' hymnsheet in explaining its success. Vice-chancellor Leslie Wagner says universities must ensure 'what they offer meets the needs of students' if they are to fill places and meet diversity targets.

London Guildhall University marketing and communications manager Robert Hawker denies that the new universities have a lingering image problem from the polytechnic days.

'Polytechnics were very successful and that was why the legislation was changed,' Hawker says. 'Once the polytechnic name went, people became a bit disoriented and it has taken a little while to build the brand appearance back up.'

But in any case, he says, the polytechnics had been more marketing-aware than their older counterparts, although the gap is narrowing.

Perched in the City of London but a mortar board's throw from some of the most deprived boroughs in the country, this institution finds the widening participation agenda particularly relevant.

The university uses outreach teams to contact large ethnic minority populations.

Although they will be key to reaching the Government's 50 per cent target, the university launched the teams on its own initiative more than a decade ago. A community education information centre emerged from an advice service set up at that time.

'It's not going to happen overnight,' Roberts says. 'It is a very

long-term policy because there are cultural issues to overcome.'

But Bengali students already top 500 - compared, Hawker says, with almost zero ten to 15 years ago.

With Liverpool ranked among the poorest regions of the European Union, inclusion is also high up the recruitment agenda of that city's 'old' university.

John Latham, academic secretary for student recruitment, says increased availability of evening and part-time provision helped to improve access.

More fundamentally, his colleagues also visit schools with poor records of progressing students to higher education. 'This is a more genuine raising of aspirations, telling pupils in those schools that higher education is not elitist and that it can be for them,' Latham says.

The university provides a summer school and 'science Saturdays' to get local teenagers on to campus.

Similar tactics are used for targeting students generally. Liverpool University targets about 500 schools with good records of grooming pupils for university. The most favoured of these are visited regularly, including visits by student ambassadors who attended the school. Mailing lists for prospectuses and course information are also closely maintained.

Pupils in those schools certainly cannot complain about lack of opportunity.


This Government loves targets and the field of further and higher education is no exception. The Learning and Skills Council's first corporate plan, produced in July, included a target to increase the percentage of 16 to 18-year-olds in education and training from 75 per cent to 80 per cent.

Ministers say that by 2010 half of 18 to 30-year-olds should have experienced higher education.

The United Kingdom has 115 university institutions, teaching about 1.6 million students. Approximately 50 other facilities are classified as colleges of higher education, teaching another 200,000 students.

There are 409 FE colleges in England, teaching about 4.3 million students last year. Scotland boasts 46 further education colleges teaching 438,000 students. Wales has 24 FE institutions teaching some 220,000 students.


During the summer, the newly launched Learning and Skills Council ran a hearts and minds campaign aimed particularly at those not bitten by the learning bug at school.

Open to all, it was particularly hoped that the 18,500 one or two-hour classes offered as part of the 'Bite Size' campaign would encourage learning-phobes to overcome their dark childhood memories of maths misery and sadistic PE teachers. With the courses intended as tasters, it was also hoped that their timing would allow people with busy lives or caring responsibilities to fit in a spot of learning during a lunch hour or on the way home from work.

The eclectic nature of the courses on offer - everything from basic information and communication technology skills to chainsaw safety and baby massage - meant there was something for everyone and ensured there were opportunities for the media to run colour pieces.

To back the campaign, the council commissioned a survey asking the public their dream training/education opportunity and teacher.

In a press release on the findings, the council trumpeted that adults would 'rather study computing with (Microsoft founder) Bill Gates or maths with physicist Stephen Hawking than have a coaching session with sporting heroes such as David Beckham or Anna Kournikova'.

Although the campaign could not quite lure Gates across the Atlantic, it did have celebrity backing.

Morning TV queen Trisha not only gushed enthusiastically at several events but a sponsorship deal meant the campaign got plugs between the usual emotional refugees on her show.

Celebrity teachers included Changing Rooms' cheeky chappy 'Handy' Andy Kane and one of the show's regular designers, Linda Barker.

Evaluation proved the campaign to be a great success, with attendances during the month-long exercise hitting 80,000 - a figure which was 30,000 higher than the government target. Nicky Bruner, assistant director for external communications at the council, said the results justified the decision to start planning for Bite Size Two next year.

Satisfaction rates were high, with 95 per cent saying the courses were worth attending and almost as many, 92 per cent, claiming they felt encouraged to do more learning in future. For more than one-third of those taking part, 37 per cent, the course was their first experience of education since leaving school.

The campaign got 16 national press hits and more than 400 local hits.

An interview with Trisha ran on 62 BBC and independent radio stations.


Harrison Cowley ran a month-long PR campaign to back government advertising aimed at widening participation of young people in higher and further education.

Both the advertising and PR campaign, commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills, were aimed at 16 and 17-year-olds in England, particularly those from lower socio-economic urban groups traditionally under-represented in post-16 education.

The agency, charged with generating news coverage, was given a target of 56 media hits over the four-week campaign, which began in February.

It was agreed that it would include celebrity endorsements and concentrate on regional press, TV and radio in areas covered by the Government's Excellence in Cities programme, a scheme for improving school performance in the inner cities.

Harrison Cowley distributed a media pack to regional media covering EIC areas.

The celebrity drive was led by DJ Judge Jules, who took part in an interview that was sold into regional and national radio.

His contribution ensured the campaign exceeded its media hits target, chalking up 79 radio, press TV and internet hits over the month.

The key messages Judge Jules and others tried to get across included the news that graduates earn an average 20 per cent more than


He also tackled fears about tuition fees and student loans.

With research showing that newspaper readership is low among the target audience, the agency also decided to organise panel debates at schools in EIC areas. These featured 'locally relevant celebrities' such as DJs Artful Dodger in Southampton and Brookside heartthrob Greg Pateras.

But the campaign also featured some celebs with rather less street cred among the target audience, notably the terminally earnest Nick Owen from BBC's Crimewatch.


Relying on TV for impressions of British adult education would leave a young foreign person rather confused. Should he or she expect the fey world of Brideshead Revisited's Oxford or the unpleasant anarchy of The Young Ones?

The British Council has commissioned a consortium to remodel its EducationUK website. The council launched its educationUK brand in 1999 after Tony Blair said more international students should be lured to the country.

The website currently features pages emphasising British education's 'unsurpassed reputation for quality', the advantages of learning in the home country of the international language and the UK's cultural attractions and compact size.

British Council senior marketing officer Kevin Van-Canter says the council also runs about 60 education exhibitions in somewhere between 30 and 40 countries each year. It provides a marketing service for member institutions.

He says that more and more institutions are becoming proficient at marketing themselves abroad, resulting in a narrowing of the gap between the best and worst, which he admits was evident three years ago.

Overseas students pay tuition fees of about £8,000. Britain's principal competitors are the US, Canada and Australia, all competing for the more than 600,000 students who study in the four Anglophone countries each year. Although the numbers studying in Britain rose from 135,000 to 158,000 between 1996/97 and 1999/00, market share remained almost unchanged, rising from 22 per cent to 23 per cent.

Professor Colin Gilligan, professor of marketing at Sheffield Business School and author of a report on the international education market, says most British institutions still have a lot to learn from their competitors, believing too many were prepared to coast on the nation's history.

'All of them are in absolute terms poor (at marketing),' he says. 'Britain has been relying on its previous strength. British education, especially in higher education, was seen to be extremely good for a very long time.

A lot of universities were guilty of failing to take account of the way competitors are changing.'

He says the rise of 'company universities' such as IBM and the entry of France and Germany into niche markets has made the market far more complex.

British universities suffer from not understanding marketing at the top, he suggests. Their marketing teams tend to be poorly paid compared with the private sector and, though many are enthusiastic, they are hampered by poor resources. Whereas brands such as the LSE, Oxford and Cambridge are very strong, others have not been developed as much as would have been the case in the private sector.

According to the Association of Colleges, the most popular overseas recruitment methods for FE colleges are the internet, overseas agents, marketing visits by college staff, trade missions and partnerships with feeder foreign schools or domestic schools of English.

As in most fields, education leaders are waiting to see what impact the 11 September attacks have on recruitment.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in