Many colleges have understood for some time that reducing over-reliance on learner funding and developing alternative sources of income has been a good way to bolster finances and somewhat insulate themselves from risks to traditional funding. Focusing on training and apprenticeships is an obvious one, but more and more colleges are also finding ways of leveraging their existing resources to grow external revenue, and the benefits are not only financial.

When we talk about college resources, they can of course be anything from sports & conferencing facilities and hair & beauty salons, to dog grooming, car servicing, or anything in between. The possibilities are as wide ranging as they are rich in potential to not only increase income but compliment and enhance the student learning experience. Sounds easy, right? Well, the trick is having a joined up approach that fully integrates the commercial opportunity with the needs of students and the curriculum offer, otherwise you either add the cost of student involvement without creating value (and consequently reduced / no profit), or the commercial operation becomes a distraction and consumes resources that could be more effectively deployed elsewhere.

So, what are the prerequisites to developing a compelling commercial offering across broad areas of the college operation? Firstly, leadership that has the commercial acumen to challenge and understand the need for the products / services in the local market, and ensure that the range of commercial operations are managed in an efficient, effective, and consistent way. Next is where it gets more tricky, there must be a clear understanding of how student involvement in the venture supports the curriculum / learning experience – here there might be organisational barriers to overcome, creation of cross-functional working groups to develop an approach that fits with the curriculum plan, and of course senior level sponsorship to help build a case for any potential investment requirements. There will be, of course, things that you should ‘just do’, such as renting out the sports hall to the local basketball team, but to really create a robust, sustainable set of commercial operations that can make a significant financial contribution then you need a plan. Here’s a deceptively simple four step approach to think about:

  • Review the effectiveness of what’s already in place and challenge middle managers to review curriculum areas for other potential commercial opportunities
  • Engage staff and students on what would be needed to make it a reality
  • Develop a joined up business plan showing how utilising students will benefit their studies as well as favourably support the cost structure of the commercial operation
  • Pilot

If done properly, with a coherent strategy and business plan showing how all commercial activities link together, the benefits can be significant. It’s not only about income though, of equal importance will be the development of learner entrepreneurial skills, and crucially the ability to differentiate the course offering from other colleges or training providers. The opportunity to bring in customers and create new community links as well as engage / partner with local business might even create additional opportunities for recruitment and apprenticeships further down the line.

A word of warning though, tempting as it might seem to try to ‘commercialise’ every opportunity, it’s important not to lose sight of a key element of your ‘core business’ – providing a sustainable environment for learning, one where resources are appropriately utilised for student and community benefit. Try asking three simple questions:

  • Does it positively impact the student learning experience?
  • Does it positively impact college finances?
  • Does it positively impact links with the broader community?

It’s no coincidence that these three questions will also form part of a wider set of criteria used to assess colleges as part of their Area Reviews this year – as ever, a clear strategy and planning is key.

(Also published in FE News, 20th January 2016)